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.

Ha ha this-a-way!

The House of Illustration is sited in a rapidly regenerating part of Kings Cross. As you take the short walk from the train station you’re welcomed by wonderful giant illustrations covering the hoardings, showcasing the variety and brilliance of illustration today. The House is just off Granary Square, recently landscaped with fantastic fountains, just begging to be jumped in!

Entrance to the House of Illustration

Entrance to the House of Illustration

The building itself is just tucked off the main square. It’s a small place – if it really was a house, and I was an estate agent, it’d be described as bijou.

Top shop! (Not Topshop)

The welcome lobby houses a delightful shop, as well as the ticket desk. Unfortunately on the day we visited there were problems with PayPal, so they couldn’t take card payments. In this new cashless economy (don’t even try and board a London bus with hard currency!) this sent us into panic. There was a sticky moment where we established the nearest cashpoint was a 20 minute round trip, and no, we couldn’t pay on the way out, but luckily we scraped together enough to get in.

The Quentin Blake exhibition is housed in a small space of just three rooms but manages to show some wonderful material within that space. The opening part is a handdrawn table top showcase where Blake explains the process of illustrating – it looks as if he’s just scribbled it there for you personally to see. The next room explores six of Blake’s book illustrations in greater detail. Seeing the original sketches and artwork for The Twits was a personal highlight – I remember reading that story to my older sister when she was ill, and I was 9 years old. I also saw material from more contemporary books, such as The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams. There was also artwork for non-children’s books – you may wish to avert your child’s eyes from the breast groping in Voltaire’s Candide! Most moving was the artwork in the final room for Michael Rosen’s The Sad Book, written as he struggled to come to terms with the loss of his son.

Unfortunately I found it difficult to engage my children with the displays as much as I hoped. The toddler was, well a toddler. They’d thoughtfully provided folding stepping stools in the lobby which he enjoyed carrying around. However the only way he could pull himself up on the stool to view the works was to use the picture frames to steady himself – which we were duly told off for. I’d expected more from my daughter, an avid reader of Dahl and David Walliams. Part of the problem was the activity sheet she had been given on the way in. One half distracted attention from the displays – she was too busy thinking of things to add to Mr Twit’s beard to look at the real mccoy! The other side of the sheet was much more successful – asking her to find and draw different emotions onto otherwise blank faces. She then studied the illustrations in much more detail, looking for examples of the various feelings to draw onto her own sheet.

After we visited the South Gallery or activity room. Overall, this seemed like a bit of a sparse afterthought. Copies of the books were available on a table to browse, but the stools were at an awkward height compared to the table so it wasn’t a comfortable spot to have story time.

Body surfing the stools

There was also a drawing station, which had a couple of specially designed colouring in sheets – these were mildly diverting.

The tweenager gets arty

The best bit was a couple of great videos – my favourite being where Blake created The Twits artwork in his studio, explaining the process in his own words. My daughter also enjoyed this. Unfortunately the screen’s off button was just at the right height for the toddler to hurtle across the room and switch it off, much to the quiet consternation of other visitors. We had to get a staff member to turn it back on *embarrassed mum* and strap the toddler in the buggy to stop it happening again.

It may be a house, but it’s not yet a home. Considering the creative subject matter, their own brilliant branding, and the dynamic area they are situated in are, this energy didn’t quite come through in our visit. People, passionate about illustrating are what I think the place is missing – but not for long I hope as they’re currently recruiting for volunteers.

More interactivity would make the place more exciting for family visitors – and other guests too! For example, the video showed how Blake uses a light box to draw over a ‘rough’ to create a final drawing. He also talks about the type of nibs he selects and why. A mocked up studio with a working lightbox, paper, inks and a selection of nibs (tied to the table if need be) would really help people learn about Blake’s illustration method through doing. Special children’s illustration workshops are run – however these have all sold out and no future dates have yet been announced, although more are in the pipeline. And if space is a premium – do chalking sessions outside, or make illustrating toolkits available for families to explore the area.

Bearing in mind this is the House of Illustration’s first exhibition, I’m very excited to see how it develops over time. I’ll definitely be back to do some Christmas shopping in the gift shop. And I can’t wait to try one of their workshops!

New motto for life

THE BARE BONES

Quentin Blake: Inside Stories runs until 2 November 2014
House of Illustration, 2 Granary Square, King’s Cross London N1C 4BH

Opening hours (check with venue before setting out):
10.00–18.00 Tuesday to Sunday

Website: http://www.houseofillustration.org.uk/

Cost:
£7.00 Adult Ticket
£5.00 Concession Ticket
£4.00 Child Ticket
£18.00 Family Ticket
*Without Gift Aid – see site for Gift Aid prices

Booking: There’s no booking fee, so you might as well. We turned up with immediate entry, but I notice some days are marked as sold out on their calendar.

Recommended length of visit: An hour or so.

Buggy accessible?: Yes, level access and they’ll store them for you behind the reception desk too.

Baby changing: A fold down table with a strap, and adult toilet too. It could do with a clean and tidy up though, as it was storing WAY too much paper towels!

Breastfeeding friendly?: There are no chairs in the exhibition and only one in the shop right opposite the door-way. Your best bet is the activity room, which has seats for the film screening and colouring-in station.

Toddler time to toilets: Less than a minute.

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Fountain o’clock!

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The tweenager takes some time to appreciate the swing, I mean artwork

Nearest playground: We couldn’t resist those fountains in Granary Square – and the September sun obliged! There’s also a swing (well actually an artwork, but it contains a swing, so let’s just call it one, shall we?) next to Kings Cross.

You could also try Camley Street Natural Park, a small green oasis on the site of a former coal yard.

Food: No food is available onsite. We had fantastic coffees, ‘the best hot chocolate ever’, cakes and biscuits from the nearby Caravan. Well, I didn’t because I’m on a dairy-, soya- and caffeine-free diet, but I’m assured they were ace and the latte art impressed Museum Dad.  We’ve previously enjoyed eating at the street food market, Kerb, in Granary Square (Mon-Fri). To picnic, there are benches and tables around the fountains and grass steps overlooking the canal.

Want to make more of a day of it?: Stroll to London Canal Museum, see Eurostar trains depart St Pancras International,or check out what’s on in Kings Place.

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.

Ancient Lives, New Discoveries is an excellent exhibition. Eight mummies, never before unwrapped, have been put through a CT scanner to see what their remains can tell us. It’s a great idea, and the resulting exhibition is gripping (and this from an Egyptian novice).

As well as easy to understand text panels, interactive technology is brilliantly used to convey the findings. In places, on large screens you ‘scroll’ like on an iPod wheel to see a 3D image of the body turned, or peeled back to search for amulets and look at internal organs.

“I can’t find a decent song on this thing” – scrolling through the interactives

The first body we meet was preserved naturally by the sands of the Sahara desert, others have been artificially mummified. Through these scans we learn their age, height, gender (not always what is indicated on the sarcophagus!), any health problems and how they were mummified. One poor man post-death had the indignity of his head being detached during the embalming process – it was crudely stuck on with a stick. Most poignant was the mummy of a two year old boy, the same age as my own son.

Combined with what is written about them on the sarcophagus, what they were buried with, and what is known about the culture of the time it feels like you are finding out about a real person, not just a ‘mummy’. Each person’s story is used as a way give insight into a part of Egyptian culture – so musical instruments of the time are displayed near a temple singer.

The toddler blur checks out the slighly more static canopic jars

A great exhibition then – and one that I would definitely recommend for older children, say over the age of 5 (when the interest in mummies really bites!) However it wasn’t designed with a younger audience in mind. The toddlers quickly lost attention and ran around looking for elephantoms, or each other. When I could catch him and make him look, there were parts my son really liked – like the animal heads on the canopic jars, or the crocodiles that a statue of Horus was standing on. But it felt like hard work doing so, both physically having to lift him and constantly having to be on hand to point out what was of interest.

I tried to listen to the (adult-oriented) exhibition tour. Unfortunately my son shouted ‘mummy!’ repeatedly so loudly within the first three minutes of the talk I thought I’d better give the poor guy a break and take my toddler to wreak havoc elsewhere.

Future special openings could easily make some small changes for toddlers. Stepping stools would mean exhibits can be easily viewed by the shorties, and the interactives would be more reachable too. Even better would be in-gallery toddler activities – anything from Egyptian mask face-painting, to story time, or handling sessions – for example, to tie in with the harps and musical instruments on display. Whilst an exhibition tour for adults is great for those with babies in slings, or quieter children (if such a thing exist!), a children’s led tour or hunt would be more appropriate for toddlers like mine.

Giant roars all round!

The setting aside a special time for families with young ones to come is a great idea, and I really hope many more such events like this are run. Like many of the other national museums, the British Museum exhibitions can be incredibly busy and very unwelcoming to those burdened with a buggy. At a trip to their Vikings exhibition earlier in the year, I saw a woman ask for her money back because there was no way she could get a buggy round without glares, tutting and negative comments from other visitors.  She’d made it as far as the first room.

Having then struggled to keep the toddler from being a total nightmare inside the exhibition, as soon as we were outside in the main museum we didn’t feel welcome at all. The toddler was clearly very excited by the space – pausing by a giant stone lion to roar, and generally running around to find new treasures. It was in Assyria that I was told off by a guard ‘You are not allowed to run’, to which I was a little in shock as I was not quite sure how to stop him, having tried for the last five minutes! I was then approached twice by another guard in the main hall for a) leaving my buggy to the right of me, and b) for my son playing with a rather fascinating retractable barrier (see Kidding Ourselves post here if you’ve forgotten how much kids love pinging these!)

The most fun we had all morning!

Maybe I am a terrible mother, ‘allowing’ my child to behave like, well, a child. The fact that I was constantly asking him not to do such childish things, and trying desperately to interest him in the exhibits just made me all the more resentful of the approaches by the guards. I use the word guards deliberately, as the staff I met didn’t feel like ‘hosts’, there to help me enjoy my visit. I could have done with some help, not criticism! There’s nothing like a ticking off (or three) to make you feel unwelcome, and after our teas I was glad to leave the museum, unfortunately feeling incredibly stressed.

Recently I’ve been reading the Kids in Museums manifesto – and one point in particular struck a chord. I paraphrase – if kids are misbehaving, as yourselves why? Are they excited, if so harness it. If they’re bored, give them something to do.

Here’s a radical idea – what if, instead of telling my son what not to do, the guard had pulled a toy out of his pocket, pointed out something amazing, or done something crazy like a magic trick? Instead of telling me to control my son, he’d asked if I needed any help, or offered sympathy? Perhaps nothing would be different – apart from making me feel a lot less like a failure, and more willing to return.

Poster and family trail

Please, please do visit this fascinating and insightful exhibition. Go on your own, take your older children, take a newborn in a sling – just leave your buggy and older baby or toddler at home. I look forward to future family viewings at the British Museum – hopefully it is through recognising the value of initiatives like this that the Museum will change from an arduous place into something much more welcoming for boisterous toddlers and buggy-pushing parents.

*2004 is the year my daughter vaulted a barrier to touch an unglazed Francis Bacon painting, whilst two guards ran towards us shouting ‘stop!’ I’m still not over it.

THE BARE BONES

Ancient Lives, New Discoveries runs until 30th November 2014
British Museum, Great Russell St, London WC1B 3DG

Open daily 10.00–17.30 (last entry 16.10)
Open late* on Fridays until 20.30 (last entry 19.10)

Website: http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/ancient_lives.aspx

Cost:
£10 Adults
£8 Child 16-18, Student, Disabled, Unemployed
£5 National Art Pass
FREE Child under 16, Member, Disabled Assistant, Museums Association member

Booking: Recommended, £1 per ticket booking fee. A small number of additional tickets are made available onsite each day.

Recommended length of visit: An hour or so.

Buggy accessible?: Yes, little open lifts are available to either side of the main steps to take you up to ground level. The exhibition is on the ground floor, with no steps. I wouldn’t want to take a buggy into the exhibition due to the likelihood of crowds though (and definitely don’t turn your back on it or it is likely to get moved, as mine did.)

Baby changing: There is a wheelchair accessible baby changing facility just outside the exit of the exhibition. It has a fold down changing table (no strap), lots of daylight, and a toilet for the adults. A simpler changing facility is available in the Great Court – a worksurface with mat on and integrated sink (no strap). If you leave the door open here all the tourists will think it’s the toilet and come in looking confused!

Breastfeeding friendly?: A bench was available just inside the first room in a dimly lit area.

Toddler time to toilets: A couple of minutes if you dash out of the exit to the accessible toilet there.

Nearest playground: You’re five minutes from Russell Square with its water feature that kids love to play in, or for a proper playground, the brilliant Coram’s Fields is a 15 minute walk.

Food: In the Gallery Cafe, one child (under 12) eats free when you buy an adult main meal. We often take my daughter to the original Wagamama, although from memory there’s a lot of stairs so I wouldn’t go with a buggy. If of the picnic persuasion, I saw families eating on the plentiful benches outside the museum, under the portico.

Want to make more of a day of it?:
There is a fab family trail of Ancient Lives available free outside the entrance to the exhibition. You can also download images of the exhibits to prepare your children before you come – http://www.britishmuseum.org/pdf/Imagebank_%20ancient%20lives%20MUMMIES.pdf. What a great idea! On weekends and holidays, family trails for the rest of the museum are available from the Families Desk in the Great Court. The joys of Carnaby Street and Oxford Street are nearby if you have a child who likes to shop, or a pleasant stroll through Bloomsbury will take you to the Grant Museum, reviewed here.

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. I picked an afternoon showing – turning up just before 2pm we walked straight in – no queue, even though it was the summer holidays! Before the film I surprised the tweenager with a visit to the Fly Studio. On the third floor of the museum, it’s a drop in photo studio where you dress up and have your picture taken against a green background. With a bit of computer wizardry they then add you to a themed background. We had great fun picking our outfit and posing – as you can probably tell from the result! They have a choice of astronauts in space, Red Arrows or – the one the tweenager picked – Second World War fighter pilots.

Picking what to wear at the Fly Zone Studio

We ran out of time to select our photo so remembered our studio time before heading off.
Unfortunately we got a bit lost – we couldn’t find the IMAX entrance, and after the quickest dash ever through the museum we had to be escorted up to the cinema in order to make the showing! We clearly weren’t the only confused ones, as with us were another family who had lost a member of their party. We thought the screen was on the third floor, which it is, but you can only enter from the ground floor, the Wellcome wing at the very back of the museum. The staff member we collared was very helpful, radioing ahead and taking us up in a non-public lift. It just meant there wasn’t time to get popcorn before the film!

A very regal looking cat flea – Image credit National Geographic Entertainment

Mysteries of the Unseen World is a 3D science film which explores what the naked eye cannot perceive – things that are either too fast, too slow or too small for us to observe. It uses time-lapse photography, computer imaging and high-speed photography to look at everything from the invisible part of the light spectrum, to how the surprisingly complex ‘slime mould’ searches for food. My favourite parts was that studying the microscopic world – the images were visually stunning.

 I won’t give too many spoilers, save to say despite being very enjoyable, the film was informative and educational – definitely learning by stealth. The size of the screen, and the 3D coming-to-get-you parts make it an immersive experience. Plus there’s a couple of gross bits, always a hit with the kids.

Behind that bag is one very large smile!

 After the film, we could finally grab that popcorn! As I’m on a restricted diet, I was delighted that the ingredients for each type were listed, and that the sweet popcorn was dairy and soya free. The medium size was massive – despite a valiant effort, the tweenager could only manage half and so took the rest to finish at the theatre that evening. At £2.50 for a small popcorn and drink, I think it’s an affordable treat. We normally go for ice-cream after a trip to the South Kensington museums, but I’m going to give the option of popcorn now. We were so relaxed it was a good time to check in with the tweenager to see how she was doing, without her clamming up.

Crowds? What crowds?

I also found a new quiet spot at the Science Museum –  the IMAX lounge! With comfy leather sofas, dim lights and hardly anyone around, even in the summer holidays, I now know where to go to catch my breath during our visits.

Collecting our photo

 Suitably refreshed, we headed back to Fly Zone to see the results of our earlier posing. You are shown three edited images, and you choose the ones you like, starting at £10 for one. For this, you get a printed photo in a special card frame, and a code so you can download the image from their website and share as you like.
A historically accurate reenactment of the Battle of Britain

A historically accurate reenactment of the Battle of Britain

The photo is a great souvenir of our visit – on this sort of outing, I’d be the one taking the pictures rather than appearing in them, so it’s lovely to have such a fun image together.
We really enjoyed this visit – just as we’d expect from the Science Museum, but doing new things together made it all the more special. Within two days, the tweenager had already asked for another film outing there – and we’ll know how to find it next time!

Photobomb!

The IMAX tickets, photograph, popcorn and drinks were complimentary from the Science Museum for review purposes. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
THE BARE BONES
Mysteries of the Unseen World is shown at IMAX 3D, Science Museum, Exhibition Road London SW7 2DD
Check venue for dates and times

Website:
http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/visitmuseum/plan_your_visit/imax/mysteries_of_the_unseen_world.aspx

Cost:
Adults £11.00
Concessions: £9
Family of 3 (up to 2 adults) £27
Family of 4 (up to 2 adults) £30

Also look at an Explorer ticket where you get an IMAX film, Legend of Apollo, Red Arrows 3D, Typhoon Force and a guidebook.

Booking:  Book online for free, by phone for £1 booking fee per ticket (max £5), or buy from a ticket desk at the museum on the day.

Recommended length of visit: Film lasts about 35 minutes, plus time for popcorn and photo – we spent 2.5 hours at the museum.

Buggy accessible?: Yes, a lift is available to take you between floors. But I wouldn’t take a toddler, they wouldn’t wear the glasses – and might be overwhelmed by the huge visuals and loud sounds! Mysteries of the Unseen World is recommended for ages 8+.

Baby changing: There is a wheelchair accessible baby changing facility on the ground floor of the Wellcome Wing (the entrance to the IMAX cinema).

Breastfeeding friendly?: In the cinema, no-one can see you feed. Plus the lounge was quiet, calm and had comfy seats. Score!

Toddler time from cinema to toilets: Don’t take them! But it’s about three minutes, depending where in the cinema you sit.

Nearest playground: With this age group, they’ll love the hands-on Launchpad on the third floor of the Science Museum. The nearest outdoor playground is the rather fabulous Diana Memorial Playground, for children up to the age of 12 (but better for younger ones).

Food: Need more than popcorn? The Science Museum has a number of eating options – the family restaurant Deep Blue being the nearest to the IMAX. You can eat anywhere in the museum without carpet, and there are picnic areas provided.

Want to make more of a day of it?: Not hard in the heart of museum land! Get thinking about current science issues in the Antenna Gallery, go all animal at the Natural History Museum or get arty at the V&A.

Review: Digital Revolution at the Barbican

My last review took two and a half weeks to write – this one I’m giving myself two and a half hours*. Why the rush? Because it’s of a fantastic interactive exhibition full of lights, noise and adventure which ends very, very soon! So soon you only have two weekends to fit it in.

Concrete zen

Concrete meets zen on the Barbican terrace

Held at the concrete palace which is the Barbican, Digital Revolution is an exhibition celebrating digital creativity – looking at how digital technology has transformed gaming, films and the arts since the 1970s. I took the tweenager and the baby, deliberately picking a day that the toddler was at nursery.

Digital Revolution is held in three main places across the Barbican itself with an  an off-site installation which we unfortunately ran out of time to visit. The first part is the largest – the main exhibition.

This starts with a retrospective of digital technology over the last 40 years, focusing on gaming. Almost every single game is playable by the visitor, either on the original gaming platform or as a modern simulation. We had great fun, playing against each other in games of my childhood. I thought I was rubbish at games – turns out classic video games such as Pac-Man and original Mario Bros are a leveller as even I could teach my daughter a thing or two! The exhibition wasn’t too busy, so we were able to have a go on everything, with barely a wait.

Did you know Pac-Man was almost called Puck-Man but there were worried about vandals changing the P to an F?

Random fact: Pac-Man was almost called Puck-Man but there were worried about vandals changing the P to an F

Game & Watch – the original nintendo double screens!

The dark space with the movie and music clips was very lively – although the dim lighting made it difficult to read the text labels, not that my daughter seemed to mind. It was  also too noisy to hear the Spell & Learn – at least, that’s the excuse I was given for the completely mis-spelt words! Small grumbles aside – the games were very nostalgic for me, and I really enjoyed sharing recollections of my own childhood with my daughter. She now has a long list of retro game consoles she’d like to own – watch out eBay! I’m a bit gutted she didn’t ‘get’ Manic Miner though.

The exhibition brought gaming up to the present day, including Minecraft. Thanks to the accompanying video, I now understand a bit more about its appeal (although my mind was blown by the fact that two guys earn their living from talking about Minecraft on youtube. Go figure!)

As well as games, the exhibition looked at digital technology in art, music – and films, including the making of Gravity. Spoiler alert: It’s all about the lighting…

You mean Gravity wasn’t really shot in space??

From then on the exhibition turns into a commercial art show meets digital buzzword bingo. Crowd-sourcing, 3D printing, movement recognition – all featured in impressive art installations.

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A singing, digital Will.i.am Pharaoh freaked us out when his eyes followed us around the room – both of us, when we were heading in opposite directions! We were so delighted to find out how it worked, we apparently missed the real show-stoppers – the instruments in the pyramid. I’d tell you what they’re about, but I’d be making it up.

She looks like an angel...

She looks like an angel…

Can you tell what it is yet?

The highlights for us were the artworks which used movement and gesture recognition – above all, Chris Milk’s work The Treachery of Sanctuary, where your shadow dramatically reforms into a bird (or you quite creepily appear to get pecked to death!)

*Croons* “I believe I can fly”

There’s lots, lots more to explore – from a specially commissioned work which can turn your wishes into butterflies, to a look at the future of technology. Much, much more than I can write about (well, within my self-imposed time limit anyway!)

The second area of Digital Revolution highlighted Indie gaming since the 1980s. Inside a blue cage, four tables were set up with four different, independently developed games at each.Here my daughter got instantly hooked on Thomas was Alone, a minimalist platform game where you hear the thoughts of a lonely rectangle. Or something.

Indie gaming in the cage

Indie gaming in the cage

The two player games were so popular we didn’t get to go on them – as a lot of people came in groups, it would have been good to have a few more stations with multi-player games.

The third part was a fully immersive installation, Assemblance by Umbrellum in the Pit (on the second floor below ground). Interactive lasers, smoke machines, bubbles… and no need to go to a cheesy club! It was a magical space, and we had great fun batting the lasers back and forth, and joining hands around them to create some strange shapes. A note of caution – due to the intensity of the lasers, this exhibit is not suitable for the under fives. I did manage to bring in the baby – because she was asleep and completely covered in the sling – but I got the impression that was a rare exception. No photos I’m afraid as my camera struggled with the dim light – and my hands were full batting lasers around anyway.

A digital pet may solve the problem…

In short, Digital Revolution’s a bit like the internet itself (without the smut)- random, perhaps pointless at times, a bit commercial, yet wonderfully surprising and incredibly entertaining. I’d definitely recommend it for all families with older children – including those usually hard-to-please teenagers. We certainly had a whole lot of fun exploring it. My daughter thought the  laser room was ‘awesome’. And she misses lonely Thomas.

* I was ambitious. It took two days to finish this review in the end.

THE BARE BONES

Digital Revolution runs until 14 September 2014
Barbican Centre, Silk St, London EC2Y 8DS

Current opening hours: (check website before setting out)
Mon–Wed: 11am–8pm
Thu–Sun: 11am–10pm

Website:
http://www.barbican.org.uk/digital-revolution

Cost:
Standard £12.50
Concessions £10.50
Young person (12-17) £8.50
Students £8.50
Children (5-12) £5 Children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult
Under 5s Free Children under 5 are not permitted in the Pit (Umbrellium)

Red Members Free + guest
Orange Members Free
Yellow Members 30% off for you + guest

Booking: We just showed up, but booking is recommended. Booking fee £1.50 online / £2.50 by phone

Recommended length of visit: About 2 hours, plus gaming time.

Buggy accessible?: Yes, a level access exhibition with a lift available to take you between floors.

Baby changing: On a number of floors. We used the one on -2, in the disabled toilet near the Pit. It had enough space for a buggy, a touch-button activated door (fancy!), and a fold down changing table (with broken strap). It also had an adult toilet and sink.

Breastfeeding friendly?: There’s not really anywhere to sit in the exhibition – there are a couple of stools, but they’ll probably be in use at the gaming stations. I used a comfy leather chair in the very quiet cinema reception area on -2, outside the Pit, but there are other places to sit throughout the Centre.

Toddler time from gallery to toilets: At least four minutes – and be prepared to add extra time to go to another floor . The ladies toilets at the very, very back of the Food Hall were out of order when we went.

Nearest playground: Five minutes round the corner is Fortune Street Park, with play areas for toddlers and bigger kids. Or you can play on the Barbican’s terrace – dip your feet into the lurid green water, or try the games provided (if you can get the City workers off them!) I saw ping pong and a bean bag throwing game.

Food: The Food Hall has a children’s pick your own lunchbox for £4.50 – expect to pay £8 for a sandwich and salad combo for the grown ups. The cakes do look *amazing*, as they should do at £3.40 a slice. Free tap water (with ice) available. There are chairs and tables on the terrace if you wanted to picnic.

Want to make more of a day of it?:  Collect the fabulously illustrated Barbican Family Trail from the Advance Booking Desk, and complete for a free prize or two. If you visit on a Saturday you could do the Framed Film Club at a meagre £2 a ticket, or check on a Sunday to see if the Barbican Conservatory is open. You’re only a few minutes away from the Museum of London, reviewed here.

Review: Creative Kids at the William Morris Gallery

Whilst museum dad is at work and the tweenager at school I like to take the toddler out in the morning. As any parent of a child that ages knows, it’s important to have age-appropriate places to take them. Somewhere they can touch everything, run, climb, scream and laugh in equal measures…somewhere they can rip things out of complete stranger’s hands and you won’t wish the ground would swallow you up. Usually we go to a playgroup, the park or have a playdate – even for a complete museophile like me, the first place that comes to mind isn’t a museum.

But I’m delighted to see that more museums are offering toddler activities – including the Walthamstow-based treasure, the William Morris Gallery.

Will.i.am Morris Gallery

Will.i.am Morris Gallery

A review of the gallery will without doubt grace the pages of this blog in the not-too-distant future. For now, hopefully it’ll be enough to know that it is housed in William Morris’ childhood home, is devoted to the life and legacy of the Victorian artist, and since reopening in 2012 has won the prestigious Museum of the Year award.

Creative Kids is an under-fives group run by the William Morris Gallery in conjunction with the nearby Lloyd Park children’s centre.  Aimed at local children, it is held twice (10am and 1pm) on the second Thursday of each month and runs for 1.5 hours a time. Each month has a different theme – the session reviewed here was called ‘Dreamcatchers’, and we previously attended ‘Painting with Nature’.

Diving straight into the art supplies

The sessions are held on the second floor of the gallery,  in the refurbished art space. Each begins with all children and carers gathering in the room. Toys and activities related to that month’s theme are available for free play and discovery – this time it was threading cards and crawling tunnels. The truculent toddler refused to partake, sitting at the craft tables instead.

Once gathered, the session leader Lesley took us downstairs to look at relevant parts of the museum. As a curator, I love the fact that the session was directly linked to the collection. As a mum with a newborn in the sling, I could have done without walking the toddler down (and then up) two flights of stairs. Especially when he kept stopping to say “look, mummy!” at nothing in particular, and holding everyone up behind us *sigh*.

Learning more about dreamcatchers in the gallery space

Learning more about dreamcatchers in the gallery space

For this session, Lesley showed us some image of first nation people, and explained the meaning behind dreamcatchers. They were used to protect the sleeping from bad dreams, and each part had significance. The web, like that of a spider, was designed to catch bad dreams, whilst the long strands would funnel down the good dreams to the sleeper.

Hands-on weaving interactive

Hands-on weaving interactive

She then brought it back to weaving, with reference to one of the interactives in the gallery, and showed us some of the William Morris tapestries – pointing out the dragons which the toddler loved seeing.

Dragon spotting William Morris stylie

Dragon spotting William Morris stylie

We climbed the stairs and took a seat at the tables, where all of the craft material had been laid out ready for us. Lesley talked us through how to make our own dreamcatcher.

The activity was modified for different ages so we tried the easier version – starting with a paper plate, then sticking paper circles with William Morris patterns onto it. The toddler, despite being prolific at nursery with sticking, refused to partake. Instead he mastered the art of scissors for the first time ever, cutting some netting which I stuck on for him *proud mum*.

Decorating our dreamweaver

Decorating our dreamweaver

A volunteer punched holes into the decorated plate, through which we weaved a web using a coloured lace. We then threaded beads  – some made from coloured pasta, or pasta with William Morris patterns stuck on – and feathers onto pipe cleaners and attached them onto the bottom of the plate. The toddler absolutely loved the threading part – so much so that I’ve since bought him some play buttons to thread at home.

Threading with his concentration face on

Threading with his concentration face on

Very soon it was snack time – fresh fruit and water – after which we sang  ‘Incy Wincy spider’ (whilst the toddler shouted “Stoppit!” repeatedly at everyone!) He was much more interested in the story ‘There was an old lady who swallowed a fly”, told with an old lady puppet who swallowed each creature in turn.

It was a very friendly group – Lesley and the volunteers all made the effort to remember my son’s name, despite having only been once, two months before.  I really like that each session is different and well-structured, that is relates to the rest of the gallery and that you get to make something and take it home. We’ll definitely be back – but perhaps more so when he’s older and can concentrate on activities for longer (and understands the concept of stairs).

 

The finished dreamcatcher (minus a few feathers!)

The finished dreamcatcher (minus a few feathers!)

THE BARE BONES

Address: Creative Kids, at the William Morris Gallery, Lloyd Park, Forest Road, Walthamstow, London E17 4PP

Held: 10.00am-11.30am and 1.00pm-2.30pm, on the second Thursday of each month.

Website: http://www.wmgallery.org.uk/

Cost: Free

Buggy accessible?: Yes – ramp to entrance, lift to second floor. If possible, I’d recommend leaving your buggy at home as you’ll have to use the slowest lift EVER to get there. If, like me, you must take some form of transportation, they do have a separate art room, also on the second floor, that you can use to store your buggies.

Baby changing: On second and ground floor, wall-mounted changing tables. Darn it, I forgot to check the strap situation. Will do next time I’m there.

Breastfeeding friendly?: It’s a friendly group with lots of parents and carers, no one batted an eyelid when I fed the baby. You can use the craft table chairs, although they have no arms, or if you wanted some privacy I’m sure you could ask to use the second art room next door.

Toddler time from event to toilets: A mere few seconds away, also on the second floor.

Nearest playground: The museum is situated at the front of Lloyd Park. Recently refurbished to the tune of £4 million, it has a children’s playground suitable  for all ages – with sandpit, play fountain, swings, balancing and climbing equipment, (challenging) slide and a skater park. Plus lots of ducks to feed, pigeons to chase and squirrels to spot!

Food: The gallery has a Tea Room of its own (call it a cafe at your peril!) The food is fresh,  it has plenty of  highchairs and overlooks Lloyd Park. Very child friendly is the nearby Bygga Bo swedish cafe, with a basket of wooden toys to play with in its little garden room. There’s also the (rather basic) cafe next to the playground too. Or bring a picnic!

Want to make more of a day of it?
Aside from checking out the rest of William Morris Gallery, and Lloyd Park, you could also visit the nearby Vestry House Museum with garden and display of children’s toys.

 

 

Review: IWM Duxford

This blog may have been quiet of late, but our house has been very noisy day and night – welcome Museum baby! With museum dad on paternity leave, the tweenager away at camp, and not wanting the toddler to feel like life as he knew it was over thanks to the new arrival, a family museum trip was in order.

As the toddler is crazy about all things transport related, we chose to visit  Imperial War Museum Duxford, a historic airfield which tells the history of aviation. This is our second attempt to visit – a few months ago we inadvertently rocked up at the end of an air show, but weren’t prepared to spend £150+ to take our party (including grandparents) in for the remaining 45 minutes. This time, a weekday in school holidays, we were sure we wouldn’t make the same mistake!

From the moment we arrived and the toddler saw the Hurricane aircraft in the car park, his main phrase of the day was “Wow! Look mummy, air-plane!”

Hurricane plane doubles up as shelter for emergency nappy change

Hurricane plane doubles up as shelter for emergency nappy change

We were greeted with the rumble of old planes regularly taking off and landing on the airfield – a wonderful surprise as we had expected only to see static displays.

Entrance to IWM Duxford

Entrance to IWM Duxford

At £17.50 per adult entrance initially seemed high – but children go free, and the large site is definitely a whole day out. The size also means it didn’t feel crowded at all, despite being the summer holidays. It’s a bit of a suntrap with few trees, so after buying our tickets we grabbed a shady picnic spot near the entrance* and checked out the action on the runway.

Picnic and plane spotting

Museum baby totally disinterested in picnic and plane spotting

We then got closer to the airfield – although you’re better off being a little further away as there’s a dark mesh across the barriers which up-close obscured the toddler’s view.

Checking out the air strip

Checking out the airfield

One of the planes in action

One of the planes in action

There are a number of hangars across the site – we headed to the largest, called AirSpace.

AirSpace from the outside

AirSpace from the outside

It is ENORMOUS – the fact that it replaced a smaller structure called SuperHangar might give you a clue as to how big!

"Wow! Look Mummy! Helly-cop-da!"

“Wow! Look Mummy! Helly-cop-da!”

It houses over 30 aircraft – from helicopters to Concorde and the Spitfire – some suspended from the ceiling. You’re recommended to start your visit on the first floor, an exhibition about the story of aviation and the role Britain and the Commonwealth played in developing aircraft. At the entrance you can see an original piece of fabric taken from the Wright brothers’ Flyer, which made the first proper air flight.

The toddler wriggles when forced to look at the Wright plane piece

Toddler lift essential to show part of the first ever successful plane

The exhibition includes a large hands on section – think push buttons, flight simulators and levers – which was extremely popular with families of all ages. The variety of fun activities explained the science behind flight – from mechanisms to drag – if there was a science project on aircraft, this would be the place to come!

Hot air balloon interactive

Hot air balloon interactive

Come (simulator) fly with me

Come (simulator) fly with me

"Can't talk, I'm on a plane!" Communication interactive

“Can’t talk, I’m on a plane!” Communication interactive

Levers a go-go!

Levers a go-go!

There was also a substantial exhibition looking at the development of commercial and military aircraft. Unfortunately we were too busy trying to find the runaway toddler to spend much time reading – it is a bit of a warren and quite easy to lose sight of kids! You can then descend to the main atrium and take a closer look at the aircraft – some of which are open for the public to go inside, depending on the availability of volunteer staff.

Concorde

The closest I’ll get to luxury travel

I tried to take the toddler onboard the fastest ever Concorde – he was fine with the steps up, but the cockpit and instruments freaked him out, so had to take him back down again!

The toddler-intimidating inside of a Concorde cockpit

The toddler-intimidating inside of a Concorde cockpit

 

Erm, is THAT it? I'll stick to Economy, thank you very much

Erm, is THAT it? I’ll stick to Economy, thank you very much

The conservation space in the hangar housed a family activity – making and painting free Airfix models of First World War aircraft, plus a colouring in competition. We hadn’t known it was on* so as we arrived at the end with a very tired toddler we didn’t take part –  you can take home the finished aircraft but not the unmade up kits, which they sell in the shop. In truth, the kit making is more appropriate for older children, being recommended for ages 8 and up.

We then had an ice-cream/ baby feeding break, with more activity on the airfield to watch. We even saw a helicopter take off, which sent the toddler into a frenzy, and a bi-plane do a loop-the-loop, which impressed us adults!

A tractor pulling a plane - double transport excitement!

A tractor pulling a plane – double transport excitement!

We managed one more hangar – where we saw an incredible collection of private planes, some being restored in front of our eyes –  when the tiredness hit us and we called it a day.

Private planes in hangar 2

Private planes in hangar 2

Tiring work this plane fixing malarky!

Tiring work this plane fixing malarky!

Before being bundled in the car, the toddler enjoyed running around in the airplane themed playground.

Even the climbing equipment is plane shaped!

Even the climbing equipment is plane shaped

Despite the severe sleep deprivation, we had a great day out. Or in the words of the toddler – “wow!” We’ll definitely visit again to see the remaining six hangars/exhibitions, and bring the tweenager too. We saw families with children of all ages, and as the toddler gets older I think he’ll get even more out of it.

 

*note to visitors – check out the board directly in front of you as you leave the ticket hall/shop to see what is going on where on the day. Don’t just run past it to the shaded tree area like us.

 

THE BARE BONES

Imperial War Museum Duxford, Cambridgeshire CB22 4QR

Current opening hours: (check website before setting out). Open daily from 10am (closed 24, 25 and 26 Dec). Closes 6pm summer season (15 March to 24 October 2014) and 4pm winter season (25 October 2014 to 14 March 2015).

Website: http://www.iwm.org.uk/visits/iwm-duxford

Cost: ‘Normal admission’ – check website for prices/date of special events
Adult £17.50
Concessions (Senior, Student, Disabled, Unemployed) £14
FREE for children (under 16), Friends, disabled carers, Museums Association members
NB – These prices include a voluntary donation.

Booking: We just showed up and had a short wait, there is no restriction on numbers.

Recommended length of visit: We did 3.5 hours, would recommend the whole day.

Buggy accessible?: Yes, flat level entrance, lifts to exhibition in AirSpace.

Baby changing: There are five baby change facilities throughout the site, the ones we checked out in the entrance and AirSpace were separate rooms with changing tables (but no straps).

Breastfeeding friendly?: There are some quiet, secluded benches throughout AirSpace, although few picnic benches in the shade outside.

Toddler time from gallery to toilets: In AirSpace, I’d say 2 minutes if you take the stairs.

Nearest playground: There’s one on site!

Food: Three cafes are available on site, see here for more information. The mess cafe offers a children’s pick and mix lunch box for £5. Picnic benches are plentiful throughout the site, although if you want shade, bring a rug and grab the trees near the entrance.

Want to make more of a day of it?: It’s a whole day out in itself! This map gives a suggested family route, or why not download a family trail in advance to give the kids something extra to do onsite?