Review – Horrible Histories: Spies at Imperial War Museum

I’d make a rubbish spy, if this trip was anything to go by. I forgot to check the route to the Imperial War Museum before sitting down on the tube, and left the camera at home! Apologies for the poor quality mobile snaps in advance – let’s pretend I wanted to give this post a reconnaissance feel.

The girls act in a clandestine manner

The girls act in a clandestine manner

I also found out not only had both my daughter and friend already visited Horrible Histories: Spies, but they hadn’t been that impressed by it. When did that happen? With school. Why did nobody tell me about it? Oh, my signature was all over the permission slip (I must have instantly forgot about it).

Thankfully, the Second World War had much more, um,  reliable secret agents, and on their second visit – without dozens of other school kids to distract them – the girls had a fantastic time.

‘You forgot the camera’ ‘No, you forgot the camera!’

Horrible Histories®: Spies tells the story of Second World War spies and spycraft, including codes, camouflage and forgeries. Don’t be fooled by the cartoon-like graphics – all of the facts and people are real. Just like the bestselling books and TV series of the same name, this exhibition focuses on the fun, horrible bits of history – so not only will your child enjoy themselves, they’ll learn something too!

We are introduced to six ‘super spies’ who all performed amazing feats of bravery and endurance during the Second World War. They are each introduced with their real name, codename, and special skill. We find more about each one throughout the exhibition – in particular, my daughter and friend loved reading what happened to them after the war.

Stamp collecting

A trail leads you through the exhibition’s eight themes, with a stamp to collect from the retro looking lamppost in each area. Each stamp refers to the main message of the zone, so it’s an educational as well as fun hands-on activity.

I like to ride my bicycle

Radio Gaga

The exhibition is packed full of quality interactives – the girls’ favourite activities being the cycle-powered radio, the disguise photo-booth and the various quizzes.

Double spy disguise action

Double spy disguise action

Visitors are encouraged to use their senses – from smelling ingredients for invisible ink to listening for real secret messages in seemingly innocuous radio broadcasts. There are also clips from the Horrible Histories TV series to watch too.

Splatting those pesky rats

The only interactive which felt a little spurious  was the projection of exploding ‘rats’ onto the floor for visitors to jump on. Having seen a nearly identical interactive in the earlier Horrible Histories: The Trenches exhibition, initially I felt as if they were recycling content better suited to a different story. But history triumphed – I found there was a spy link with the suggested use of explosives in rats. Plus the girls loved stepping on the digital pests too!

No army landings here, sir. Just people with massive bare feet.

Given the drawing and narrative style, there is a risk that the stories could seem a bit fantastical – but the presence of real objects  really help remind the visitor of the history behind the exhibition. The girls’ favourites included the fake feet put on top of boots so that those involved in beach landings would leave foot- rather than boot-prints on the sand.

They also loved the fake Hitler passport created by the Special Operations Executive to showcase their fantastic forgery skills.

Hitler’s passport. Or is it?

 At times it all gets a little Bond-like – a secret spike letterbox, a prototype smoking pipe gun and a biscuit tin radio feature in the displays. But it was the ingenious use of washing on the line to pass messages over the enemy lines which most impressed me. I’ll never look at laundry in the same way again!

Handkerchief. Eiderdown. Linen. Pants. Story of my life.

The quizzes at the end helped remind the girls of what they’d seen (or learnt by stealth), one of which is available to take at home:

Testing times

All in all,  it  was a great space to allow children to explore and enjoy, and without the crowds of the rest of the museum.  It was fun without being frivolous – the spies’ stories and special gadgets show the ingenuity and bravery involved to help win the war. If you’re looking for somewhere warm and easy to take the kids to this Christmas, this is perfect. Just bring your camera, and check the route before you get on the tube!

NB – The Imperial War Museum has been newly refurbished – look out for a fuller post soon!

The exhibition tickets were complimentary from the Imperial War Museum for review purposes. All thoughts and opinions are my own.


Horrible Histories: Spies runs until Sunday 4 January 2015
Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Rd, London SE1 6HZ

Open daily 10am-6pm, last admission 5.30pm.
Closed 24, 25 and 26 December.


Adult – £6.20
Child (4-15) – £3.30
Concessions – £4.40
Family of 3 – £12.25
Family of 4 – £15.60
Family of 5 – £19

Family tickets – maximum two adults
Children 3 and under go free

Booking: Book online and save 10% or buy from ticket desk on day.

Recommended length of visit: I’d say you’d need about 45 mins to an hour for the exhibition, although to our surprise we managed nearly 2 hours!

Buggy accessible? Yes, there are four lifts at the rear of the museum to take  you up to the exhibition floor. Top tip: the West Entrance gives a step free route to the main hall. This is to the right side of the museum, in the park and past the cafe terrace.

Baby changing: Two facilities are available on the ground floor, one near the West Entrance and one in the reddest toilet you’ll ever go in, underneath the main entrance. Both have fold down tables (the red one  had a strap) and an adult toilet inside too.

Breastfeeding friendly?: It’s quite dim, not too busy and has a few places to sit so I was able to feed the little one.

Toddler time from exhibition to toilets: Yikes, not good. If you had the buggy, you’d have to wait for a lift, then would recommend using toilets near West Entrance as there were queues to the other ladies’ toilets. Give a good, nerve wracking 4 minutes.

Nearest playground: The IWM is surrounded by Geraldine Mary Harmsworth park which includes a small playground with swings, climbing frames etc. There’s also a brick hut which hosts playgroups during the week – see and for more information.

Food: There’s a nice cafe run by Peyton & Byrne and a tea room in the summer months too. We had our lunch outside in the park.

Want to make more of a day of it?: There’s the rest of the Imperial War Museum to explore – including the stunning atrium, A Family in Wartime exhibition and the showcase galleries on the First World War. I’d be tempted to walk 20 minutes to the South Bank and show the kids the River Thames, the London Eye, the Houses of Parliament and the street performers. There’s usually lots of fun stuff going on at the South Bank Centre.

Review: Historic Dockyard Chatham

October is birthday month, and what better way to spend it than quality time with the family – at a museum of course! As birthday girl, I got to choose – I wanted somewhere new but close enough we could drive to with a screaming baby. I plumped for the Historic Dockyard Chatham – less than an hour from home. There was no escaping – the whole family came on this trip.

Entrance to Historic Dockyard Chatham

Entrance to Historic Dockyard Chatham

The Historic Dockyard Chatham boasts of being the world’s most complete example of an historic dockyard from the age of sail. With roots in Tudor times, and parts still in use today there’s certainly lots to see –  historic buildings, Royal Navy warships and lots more ship-building heritage – all on a massive 80 acre site.

Continue reading

Museum Mum’s FREE October half term holiday museum activity calendar

It’s soon to be half term – and what a long term it has been! You guys may recall this summer I created a calendar of free museum family events happening in London over the summer holidays – with no entrance or event charges. Well, you guys LOVED IT, and it very quickly became the most popular post I’ve written so far.

Getting crafty with the stained glass activity

Getting crafty in May half term

So, to say thanks for all the page views, I’ve done it again! Although obviously not for the summer holidays, that would be silly. Instead, I’ve done another trawl of over 75 websites to find out what you can do with the nippers in London museums this October/Halloween half term – for nowt. All treats, no tricks! And think of all that money you can save for the dreaded ‘C’ word. There are currently 525 events listed, so ‘witch’ ones will you choose?

Here’s the timetable:

Listings start from Saturday 25 October 2014 and run until Sunday 2 November 2014, with a few stragglers outside these dates.

It’s a google calendar – so you can easily copy any events that interest you to your own diary.

Any errors are entirely blamed on museum baby. Wherever possible I’ve added the URL of the original listing so please check before you head out. If you’re a museum with a free activity that hasn’t been listed, drop me a line!

If you want to say ‘FANGS!’ then please do the following:
* add a comment below – a simple ta will suffice, or let me know what you’ve enjoyed
* tweet me on twitter @vykisparkes
* share with your networks – facebook, twitter, your local parenting groups
* follow me for more updates – click on the brown cog on the top right hand side of this blog and enter your email to get automatic updates

For all you non-Londoners, I hope this inspires you to contact your local museums and see what they are up to.

Have a ghoulishly good time!

PS. If you want some inspiration, you could check out these reviews:
Museum of London, Jacqueline Wilson at the Museum of Childhood, Grant Museum

Review – Quentin Blake: Inside Stories at House of Illustration

Confession time: I love Quentin Blake. I wouldn’t dare try imagine my favourite Roald Dahl books without him. One of the joys of parenthood has been sharing the stories I loved as a child with my own daughter. That is, until she learnt to read by herself, just as we were getting to the good stuff. Still, I have another two chances, right?

We’re going on a drawing hunt!

Quentin Blake: Inside Stories is the opening exhibition for The House of Illustration, or as it calls itself, ‘the home for the art of illustration’. Given that it has been pledged Blake’s archive and library, I’ve been very excited about taking my drawing mad daughter there. We took a visit with the whole family plus adult friend. Continue reading

Calling all nosy parkers! Open House 2014: the museum edit

Are you and your family the inquisitive type? Have a nosy at your local museum this Open House weekend! On the 20th and 21st September there will be over 800 buildings, neighbourhood walks, architects’ talks, and much more available to explore – including a little known museum gem near you!

How do you drive this thing? Walthamstow Pumphouse Museum, Open House 2013

Get in for free to paid museums like the Canal Museum, the Old Operating Theatre Museum or The Fan Museum.
See places that are rarely open, such as London Fire Brigade Museum or Walthamstow Pumphouse Museum.
See parts of the museum normally closed to the public, like the Victorian kitchens at Gunnersbury Museum.
Or do a special themed activity- make a Thames tunnel peep show at Brunel Museum. Or complete a special trail at Bruce Castle Museum and the Museum of the Order of St Johns.

Open House weekend is billed as ‘your opportunity to get out and get under the skin of the amazing architecture in every London neighbourhood’. Visit the Open House website to see what else your curious tribe can get up to as part of your day out. All activities are free!

As always, check with venue before setting out, particularly as some events are just on one day.

Whatever you do, have fun exploring!

Review: Ancient Lives, New Discoveries at the British Museum

Last week the British Museum held an exclusive morning view for families of their exhibition Ancient Lives, New Discoveries. The same price as a normal ticket got you exclusive access to the exhibition (apart from members of the museum), a tour by the Exhibition Curator and a free tea or coffee afterwards. Plus the promise that you wouldn’t feel pressured to keep your kids quiet – just what every mum of a toddler wants!

The tweenager is back at school, so in our group were two adults, two toddlers, and the baby.

I’ll focus on the exhibition as it was the main purpose of our visit. But I can’t ignore the way I felt almost as soon as we stepped into the main museum. My oh my. This goes down as my most stressful museum visit since, well, 2004*. As a seasoned museum visitor and a mum of three I have nerves of steel – but even these were severely tested. The British Museum turned out to be one of the least friendly places I have ever taken a toddler. But more of that later. Continue reading

Review – Mysteries of the Unseen World at the Science Museum IMAX

The tweenager was very busy doing her own thing this summer, including a week at cadet camp, and two weeks at transition camp for secondary school. What with the whirlwind which is the new baby, we were much in need of a bit of quality time together.

One day she bounded home from a camp trip to the Science Museum, begging to see a 3D film at the IMAX cinema there. Mysteries of the Unseen World, a new 3D film was opening. I picked a day the toddler would be at nursery so that we could have our girlie day out (with baby, of course). The tweenager had a theatre trip planned that evening (I told you she was busy!) – I didn’t want to tire her out, but I wanted it to be special.

I sees it – the Unseen World advertising

 And special our visit was – normally we come to visit the galleries, but this time we enjoyed the museum in a different way. Continue reading