Museum Mum’s Summer Postcards

I’ve been on holiday this summer – not just a blogging holiday, but actual family holidays. The type where you spend lots of time together away from home, eat ice-cream on a slightly chilly UK beach, and the kids squabble in the back of the car on the way back. As well as our London outings, two short breaks to Kent and a couple of weeks camping in Hampshire meant we got to explore outside the capital. I thought of you guys every time I went to a new museum – so, a little belatedly, here are my virtual postcards. Short, to the point, and hopefully bringing a bit of summer cheer to our increasingly dark days.


Carsten Holler: Decision at the Hayward Gallery.
Irrelevant choices, playing with perception – and of course, those slides! Fun but forgettable.


Powell Cotton Museum
Amazingly full-on Victorian diaromas – think animals falling off cliffs – and a hands-on exploration room. The place where my son thought the lion was eating the buffalo with jam (it was blood, I didn’t tell him that).


Fort Nelson
Atmospheric tunnels, sea views and BIG guns. The kids squealed excitedly through the loud, live gunfirings. A good outdoor army-training style playground that even had the tweenager up on her feet.


Knole, National Trust
Yes, this had spectacular grounds with free roaming deer. Inside, it was stuffed with Tudor relics from the courts of Henry VIII. The toddler spotted animals throughout (torch provided) and Museum Dad was fascinated by the ongoing conservation work. But, more memorably for us it was the best activity we have undertaken as a family, ever. Like, we actually all produced something we were proud of (hand stitched monogrammed book anyone?) And they even let my toddler join in. Awesome.


Turner Contemporary
Spectacular sea views and excellent art exhibitions in this small, friendly gallery. We bashed cymbals in a group participative piece, and showed the kids Grayson Perry’s work (rushing them past the more explicit pieces). All next to a sandy beach – a good family day out.

The Mary Rose

Wow! A  spectacular place that engaged the whole family. The tweenager was inspired by the video on the conservation of this Tudor warship, informing me  knowledgeably about its treatment. We played period games in their event space, which even had a special play spot for babies. At the handling table, the toddler asked lots of unintentionally gruesome questions about surgical tools which made the volunteer giggle with embarrassment. The use of dark and light in the displays was magical, with brilliant interactives, videos and people stories.

Petersfield Museum and the Flora Twort Gallery
Two small, local museums, within a few minutes walk of each other showing local history, costume and art. Made to feel very welcome, with train set brought out for toddler to play with. Offer a family quiz trail to the pretty village of Petersfield – with a sweet reward at the end! Part of a very relaxed day out.

The place where the toddler chipped his front tooth on a showcase, shoving the tweenager to try and see the very small screen embedded in it. A bus ride or very long walk to see stones, couldn’t listen to audio guide as kids moaned so much. I cried (at kids, not monument). Go without young children. Enough said.

Hampton Court Palace
We took part in a focus group, reviewing the family audio guides – the best being the tour of the Tudor kitchens, complete with grumpy spit boy! Toddler loved being chased around the maze (three times), beautiful outdoor spaces with plenty of places to sit and relax.

That’s my summer – well, almost, I’m saving my favourite visit for a full review, coming very very soon. I’d love to hear what you’ve been up to -why not send me your own postcard? Comment below, or tweet me @museum_mum and I’ll share the best.

1,000 FREE activities for families – Museum Mum’s August Holiday calendar

School’s out for summer! Although by now the novelty of no school runs has worn off, you might already be wondering WHAT ON EARTH you’re going to do with your little darlings for the rest of the holidays. Particularly if the weather continues to, erm, surprise us!

Marbled paper making at William Morris Gallery

Capturing that ‘Look what I made, mum!’ moment

Fear not, London dwellers. You probably live only a short walk, bus or tube ride away from an amazing museum offering brilliant crafts, activities, and events FOR FREE. In fact, there are well over 1,000 free events for families in London’s museums this August. No entry fees, no charges – all the more to spend in the gift shop on the way out!

It can be tricky finding out where and when these activities take place – so all are conveniently listed here, in my online calendar:

Dates run from 1-31 August 2015. It’s a google calendar – so you can easily copy any events that interest you to your own diary. I’ve added the URL of the original listing so please check before you head out. Any errors are blamed on the fact I’ve not slept properly for at least a year.

For all you non-Londoners, don’t get mad – get searching, and find out what’s happening in your local museum.

PS. Like the timetable? Let me know by:
* Leaving a comment below – a sunny ‘cheers’ will suffice!
* Share it with others – tweet, post on your wall or mention it to your parenting friends
* Follow me (but only on twitter @vykisparkes or instagram @museummum, stalking is not appreciated)
* For regular Museum Mum news –  click on the brown cog on the top right hand side of this blog and enter your email to get automatic updates

PPS. If you want some inspiration, why not check out these reviews: Grant MuseumMuseum of London,  Kenwood House and Small Stories at Museum of Childhood.

Review – Plantastic at Horniman Museum

I’m not sure if the blossoms have been more spectacular this spring – or if by pointing out EVERY SINGLE FLOWER on our walks, the toddler has turned me into a plant addict!

Horniman Museum main entrance

Walk this way!

Inspired by the toddler’s love of nature, we made the voyage south of the river to Plantastic – an exhibition dedicated to plants at the Horniman Museum.

Toddler standing outside sign for Plantastic

“Look natural, you said?”

As soon as we stepped inside I knew it would be a hit – the combination of bright colours and oversized plants just shout ‘FUN SPACE’!

Anyone else thinking ‘Honey, I shrunk the kids’?

The large, hands-on interactives meant the toddler was straight in there – crawling through giant plant root systems, turning handles and pressing buttons.


Inflatable plants? Whoever heard of such a thing?

Puffing, sniffing, drawing, puzzling – this exhibition really needs ‘doing words’, as I was taught to call verbs, to describe it! There are short panels in three languages – English, French and Spanish – but really, it is learning through doing.

Magnetic jigsaw of plant structure

Forget puzzle trees – here’s a puzzle plant!

There’s a really good mix of games and interactives – from 3D puzzles putting together a plant’s reproductive system, to computer flying simulators of how a bee sees the world.

3D simulator of bee vision

Probably the strangest eye test you’ll ever take

The games have been well selected so that almost all benefit from having an adult join in – making it a great space to play together.  One of our favourites was the ‘Supa-Mart’, a mock up shop with life size plant based products. You had to answer the questions on the digital screens by ‘scanning’ the barcode on the related product. Play shops and learning? Spot on!


Who needs the Supa-Mart?

The range of interactives – including group plant quizzes – makes it a good choice for a mixed age group family. When we fancied a rest, or a feed, there was a bean bag area with birdsong, soft toys and stories which was a perfect counter to the activity.



As with most hands-on exhibitions, a couple of interactives didn’t work but that turned out to be my son’s highlight. A large red man was meant to be fed different ‘plants’ on discs – but unfortunately it seems they didn’t agree with him and got stuck. I’m hoping the fascinating fix  – sticking a ruler down his throat –  won’t be renacted at home!

Signs of spring in Horniman Museum & Gardens

Signs of spring in Horniman Museum & Gardens

Going out to enjoy the sunshine, straight away the toddler ran to the crocus, said ‘plants’ and smelled them! He also tried to step on them, but hey, that’s a form of interaction, right? The exhibition had definitely inspired a budding botanist.

Alright, pet?

The gardens are fantastic with a petting zoo, a formal courtyard, a music garden and plenty of space to picnic and play. Best of all were the incredible views over the London skyline.

I love London in the spring time

We finished our visit by popping in to the Horniman aquarium to see the fish – and ask ‘the man’ the burning question of where the door to the left of the first room went (answer: behind the tanks to feed the fish).

Aquarium at the Horniman Museum

Nothing fishy going on here!

This summer, give softplay a miss – you won’t be disappointed. Plantastic is a great hands-on discovery centre type exhibition for families to play together – and with all the Horniman’s other indoor and outdoor activities it makes for the perfect day out. Just check on that poor red man for us, won’t you?


Plantastic runs until 1 November 2015
Horniman Museum and Gardens, 100 London Road, Forest Hill, London, SE23 3PQ

Ticket prices (including 10% voluntary Gift Aid donation):
Adult £7.15
Child (3-16) £3.85
Child (under 3): FREE
Family ticket £18.15 (2 adults/3 children)
–Combined ticket with Aquarium available.

Nearest playground: There’s plenty to explore in Horniman’s own gardens – but for a playground proper, just pop over the main road to Horniman’s Triangle which has a sandpit, webbed climbing frame, and a cafe.

Baby change: One baby change facility in the disabled toilet, with fold down baby change and working strap. They also have a separate, dedicated baby feeding room with soft chair with arms, and a mirror. Kudos.

Toddler time to toilets: They’re on the same floor, so you can do it in a minute.

Want to make more of a day out of it? Check out the museum’s hands-on exploration activities, galleries on natural history, and other cultures. Or do more plant-inspired exploring in nearby Dulwich Park.

Failure: an illustrated guide OR Happy Birthday Museum Mum!

Museum Mum is one! It’s been a year since I nervously wrote my first post – and set myself the challenge of reviewing 50 museums or their activities in 12 months.

Kids look for ‘eeewww’ things together at the Grant Museum!

Our first review – looking for ‘eeeewww’ things at the Grant Museum

Dear reader, I’m sorry to say that I failed. Whilst I knew my time would be limited, I didn’t quite anticipate how meagre my minutes would be. How baby number three might come with her own health concerns, as well as a refusal to be out of my arms, EVER! (I’m writing this one thumbed on my mobile whilst she sleeps on my arm.) Bundle this together with the relentlessness of a boisterous toddler and a growing tweenager, chuck in the odd illness, holiday, family gathering, house stuff, day at work, or other projects and BOOM – bang goes my blogging time.

Mum, this is NOT how you play Flappy Birds

Mum, this is NOT how you play Flappy Birds

So whilst I didn’t write 50 reviews, I managed about 30 posts, including listing guides. We visited more museums than that – writing up is always the hard bit, finding the headspace to find my voice.

But strangely for someone who is driven by achieving goals, I’m still feeling incredibly positive about my first year. I’ve written some posts I’m rather proud of. I had tens of thousands of you read my mutterings (thanks for that. No, seriously!) I’ve loved your comments and tweets and finding new like-minded people on and off line. I got involved with Kids in Museums, and spoke at their Family Friendly Welcome workshop at the Science Museum. With museum baby too – I’m really not joking about that attachment thing.

I know I’ve definitely encouraged more families into museums – well, that’s what you tell me- and have made a few museums try even harder to get their family offer right. And that’s exactly what I wanted to do.

On a selfish level, me and my family have had a blast visiting some brilliant museums!

Launching water rockets at Royal Gunpowder Mills

Launching water rockets at Royal Gunpowder Mills

We’ve built and launched rockets and covered our ears, squealing with delight, during firework shows.

Aquarium at the Horniman Museum

Fish hunting at the Horniman Museum Aquarium

We’ve marvelled at wildlife in aquariums, butterfly houses, bee hives and petting farms.

Me holding baby with paint on feet towards wall covered with paper

Museum baby feet painting at Little Feet, British Museum

We’ve made oodles of crafty things – including dreamweavers, stained glass windows, marbled paper, rope – and sometimes just enjoyed making a mess!

Easter egg prize from Vestry House Museum

Being a successful egg hunter at Vestry House Museum

We’ve played games and hunted high and low for eggs, letter trails and objects – sometimes enjoying a treat for our efforts!


Wow, gold is really heavy!

We’ve held bars of real gold, clambered through a submarine, and ridden on monorails, vintage buses and land trains.

A historically accurate reenactment of the Battle of Britain

A historically accurate reenactment of the Battle of Britain

We’ve been spell bound by stories, dressed up, cracked codes, gone all secret agent, marvelled at 3D cinema and been impressed by digital theatre. We’ve been moved to tears by  an eyewitness account from the holocaust.

Enthralled by aeroplanes at IWM Duxford

And I don’t even know where to start with the amazing objects we’ve encountered – highlights include eight mummies with their secrets discovered digitally, old helicopters and (working) aeroplanes, Hitler’s (fake) passport, Grayson Perry’s pots, a jar of moles, Nick Sharratt’s and Quentin Blake’s original illustrations, Victorian urinals, and story telling dolls houses.

Baby, I mean, toddler-cino time!

There have been countless ice-creams, cakes, coffees and picnics – a requisite of any museum visit.

And we’ve done it with dozens of friends and family, proving museums are a fantastic, social place for those with kids. If this is what failure looks like – bring on a second year of Museum Mum!

Review: Easter Nursery Rhyme Hunt at Vestry House Museum

One of the things that most says Easter to me, is a well organised egg hunt. And if somebody else has done the organising for me, all the better! This weekend I took advantage of one at our local museum – Vestry House Museum in Walthamstow.

Vestry House Museum entrance

Vestry House Museum

On arrival, we were handed a museum Easter Nursery Rhyme quiz and pencil, as well as a quick explanation of the trail.

Vestry House Museum Easter Nursery Animal Trail

Trail and most welcome pencil EVER!

I LOVE it when museums give you pencils with a trail! It means I don’t have to dig around the bottom of the changing bag, where biscuit crumbs go to die, in a vain attempt to find a working writing implement.

To complete the trail, we had to find the animal cutouts, stuck in 14 places around the museum. Next to each one was a nursery rhyme which contained an animal – the name of which was blanked out. From the rest of the rhyme you had to guess and write down the name of the animal. Despite being only two, the toddler understood that we were ‘looking for animals’ so off we trotted.

Easter Hunt in Vestry House gardens

Animal hunting in Vestry House Museum gardens

We started outside in their award winning, community garden. Inspired by the garden’s history as an eighteenth-century workhouse garden, it is now maintained by volunteers. With the daffodils in full bloom and the sun breaking through the clouds, it was a lovely place to explore – and the occasional sound of a train passing was music to my son’s ears too!

Vestry House Museum gardens - lamppost

A rabbit up a lamppost?

The animals were big, bright and located so that they involved just the right amount of effort to find. We definitely needed to work together as a family to solve the hunt as reading and writing were required.

Seven Wives to Seven Ives clue

You’ll need a calculator for this one

Some of the rhymes were new to me –  with this one about a crazy counting trip to St Ives I saw quite a few other perplexed families!

Having taken in the garden, we continued our hunt inside, seeing many of the museum’s highlights on the way.

Frederick Bremer Car at Vestry House Museum

Toddler sits in front of car shocker

See that? It claims to be the oldest, British-built petrol driven car, built by local engineer Frederick Bremer in 1892.

Vestry House museum Easter trail - panelled costume gallery

Maybe my wellies can go on display here one day

The costume gallery has some beautiful wedding dresses, including a Victorian one – but check out that gorgeous 16th century panelling!

Reconstructed Police Cell Vestry House Museum

‘It’s a fair cop gov, I took the egg’

The reconstructed police cell, a massive hit with my daughter when she was younger, proved a little too scary for the toddler!

Vestry House Museum toy display

It’s behind you!

Toy room Vestry House Museum

‘And I want this one, and this one, and this one…’

Upstairs is a room filled with toys my son would love to get his hands on!

Vestry House Museum Easter trail 1940s room

I liked the 1940s austerity room set in the displays on domestic life.

Easter egg prize from Vestry House Museum

‘Want to see a magic trick? Close your eyes for 2 seconds and I’ll make this egg disappear’

Trail completed, the toddler was delighted to finish and receive a chocolate egg for his efforts – he promptly sat on the bench outside and scoffed it in one go.

Local museums can be fantastic havens for families – a manageable size, easily accessible and welcoming. And with a sick tweenager at home, it was great to have something already set up, close enough to nip along to. But I think my son enjoyed it a lot more than it just being a small diversion – the next day when I suggested an egg hunt at the park, my son had a crying fit saying ‘I want to look for animals at the museum!’ Those tears were surely the sign of one very happy visitor.

Vestry House do events throughout the year – but what about your local museum? If you sign up to their mailing list, you’ll always know what sanity savers they have on offer.


Vestry House Museum, Vestry Road, Walthamstow, London E17 9NH

Opening hours: 10.00am-5.00pm Tuesday to Sunday.


Cost: Free

Buggy accessible?: Partly – you can get your buggy in the museum via the ramp, round the lower galleries and some of the garden is paved. Upper galleries are only accessible by stairs. They let us park our buggy inside by the lockers.

Baby changing: One in the disabled toilet in the garden, with a working strap.

Breastfeeding friendly?: There are benches in the garden, but little seating elsewhere.

Toddler time from galleries to toilets: You’ll need to pop outside to the toilets in the garden, so allow two-three minutes from upstairs.

Nearest playground: Right behind the museum on Vestry Road is a ball court with small swing, roundabout and see-saw. Improvement works are in the pipeline!

Food: None available inside the museum – nearby Orford Road, the heart of ‘Walthamstow Village’ has plenty of pubs and restaurants and the poshest Spar ever which cooks fresh takeaway pizza to order. My daughter’s current favourite eating spot is right next door to the McDonald’s on Hoe Street – a Turkish cafe where for £2.50 they hand-make stuffed breads to order. Yum.

Want to make more of a day of it? The nearby William Morris Gallery and Lloyd Park are great for families – bring a bucket and spade for the giant sandpit, your swimsuit for the fountain in summer, and your scooter or skateboard for the skater park! I reviewed Creative Kids at William Morris Gallery here.

Museum Mum’s FREE Easter holiday museum activity calendar

It doesn’t seem five minutes since half term, but Easter is almost upon us – and with it two whole glorious weeks with the family. London’s museums have once again egg-celled themselves with over 700 activities for your off-spring – and all for FREE. That’s right – no entrance or event charges – leaving you more to spend on lining the Easter bunny’s pockets. Egg hunting, bonnet making, nature trailing, scientist meeting, story listening, art creating, dancing, object handling, yarn bombing -very active, very hands on and lots of fun!

Signs of spring in Horniman Museum & Gardens

Signs of spring in Horniman Museum & Gardens

To save you from your own Easter hunt, I’ve compiled all of these egg-citing free London museum activities here in one choc-a-block online calendar.

Dates run from Saturday 28 March to Sunday 12 April 2015.  It’s a google calendar – so you can easily copy any events that interest you to your own diary. I’ve added the URL of the original listing so please check before you head out. Any errors are blamed on the human condition.

If, like us, you’ve got different weeks off, why not visit one of the larger museums when everyone’s back at school? All of the kudos, ovoid-ing the crowds (hopefully).

For all you non-Londoners, there’s plenty of amazing museums outside the capital – just search to see what’s happening in your local museum.

Whatever you do with you and yours, a very hoppy Easter to you all.

PS. Like the timetable? Let me know by:
* Leaving a comment below – an ‘egg-cellent’ will do if you don’t know what to say!
* Share it with others – tweet, post on your wall or mention it to your parenting friends
* Follow me (but only on twitter @vykisparkes or instagram @museummum, anything else would be weird)
* For regular Museum Mum news –  click on the brown cog on the top right hand side of this blog and enter your email to get automatic updates

PPS. If you want some inspiration, why not check out these reviews: Grant MuseumMuseum of London,  Kenwood House and Small Stories at Museum of Childhood.

Review: Small Stories at the Museum of Childhood

Most reviews I write after a single visit – and try to capture our experience as a family, however much or little we see of a place.  My inner museum professional is affronted by these seemingly ‘imperfect’ visits where tiredness, hunger and dirty bums encroach on our time. Kids, we haven’t read ALL the text panels – or looked at all the displays! But as I’m reviewing for families hopefully just as imperfect as me, I regularly fight the urge to revisit places to do them ‘properly’.

However for this review, of the Small Stories exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood, my inner perfectionist demanded a revisit.  Our first visit was a hastily made plan B, after arranging to meet a friend at another museum – on the only day it closes in the week. Oops. A coffee and catch up was essential after that mishap, with a play in the sandpit followed swiftly by lunch.

It’s baby- sorry, toddlerccino time!

By the time we made it to Small Stories, it was a little too late in the day for my liking.

Exhibition entrance

At first Small Stories appears like a simple exhibition – twelve dolls houses from different eras and dolls that tell stories. Boom.

‘I prefer magnolia personally’

The dolls houses range in age, size and style – from a large country pile made out of an early hanging wardrobe 300 years ago, to a brightly coloured perspex open plan 21st century home. With a Victorian terraced lodging house, a post Second World War tower block, and mid-twentieth century council house also on display, it’s like a brief history of British architecture – in miniature.

And if you save up all your pocket money for the next 400 years, you too might be able to afford a shoebox in London

Each house is displayed complete with furniture, furnishing, and accessories, right down to a set of little toy bowling pins in a playroom. You can turn on the lights in each dolls’ house to get a better look – and the toddler certainly enjoyed pressing the buttons. All in all there are a dizzying 1,800 miniature objects and 107 dolls on display – many specially conserved for this exhibition. Having worked on exhibitions before, my mind boggled thinking of how long it must have taken to put all this together!

A summer’s afternoon in the Museum Mum house…

My favourite house was the Art Deco home complete with outdoor swimming pool and strangely lithe dolls. I can just imagine the cocktail glasses chinking whilst the jazz blared out of the gramophone.

I liked the information given about the original makers and owners of each the dolls houses – it gave such a personal insight into each of them and I could really imagine them in people’s homes, rather than in a museum. It was interesting to see how many were made by women in their adult years as reflections on their childhood years (like Amy Miles’ house), or as a space where perfection is possible (Betty Pinneys’ house).

The toddler enjoyed the playspaces, particularly the kitchen. Here he grumpily grabbed metal plates and banged them on the wooden table, like a put-upon footman from Downton Abbey.

Get lively with the kettle luv, no point us dilly dallying around here

As well as a being fun I loved the way it had been designed to look like a blown up version of the dolls’ house just outside. There was also a play living room, all kitsch and 1960s, just like the tower block we’d been looking at a minute before.


The tweenager particularly enjoyed Dream House – a 20 roomed dolls house with each room made by a different artist or designer. Bright and creative, and really highlighted how doll’s houses are not just reproductions of homes in miniature, but also represent an imaginative playspace.

Toddler checking out Dream Spaces

Each house also had a button to press to hear the dolls speak. As the exhibition was quite busy, you couldn’t really hear the audio very well – in fact we assumed they were broken as they seemed unresponsive.IMAG1494

Although we still enjoyed ourselves, I knew there was more to Small Stories than I could appreciate with a nap deprived toddler so decided to revisit – and I’m so glad I did!

As I was sans tired toddler on my second visit, I had plenty of time to read those pesky text panels and listen properly to the dolls’ stories. I found out that the audios were all working – but as you can only have either all lights or the story character (and corresponding light) on at a time – and they WILL NOT be interrupted, even if you do change your mind and want to hear someone else. Or just randomly hit buttons like the toddler.

I started to see the houses differently – as somewhere less idyllic, requiring upkeep, a place of work, a public entertaining space, that demanded something of all the residents. Many of the dolls were stressed out. Poor Betsey the maid in the Killer Cabinet House was worried about keeping the place clean, what with living in a dirty town during the Industrial Revolution and all. Sir Phineas Henriques was convinced his man servant was stealing from him, whilst in the early twentieth century home the ‘servant problem’ was finding staff in the first place.

Tate Baby House

One story which really struck a chord was Johanna’s in the Tate Baby House, anxiously writing a letter to her mother whilst big-bellied and awaiting her two week ‘confinement’ to bed. Whilst I would have liked a bit more rest post-birth, I think keeping me in bed for a fortnight would have sent me over the edge!


Johnanna’s room of confinement

There were also elements of great humour – keep an eye out for drunk Uncle Herman, looking and sounding like something out of the Fast Show in Betty Pinney’s House.

Judging by the other visitors I saw enjoying and engaging with the objects, this really is an exhibition for all ages. Your kids will like it, your parents will love it – and you’ll be won over too – especially if you get a chance to see it ‘properly’.

PS I’ve just joined Instagram – feel free to follow me on @museummum if you want to see pictures of this and other exhibitions, as well as snapshots of my daily life.


Small Stories: At Home in a Dolls’ House runs until 6 September 2015
V&A Museum of Childhood, Cambridge Heath Road, London E2 9PA

Opening hours: 10.00am to 5.45pm daily


Cost: Free

Further details, including buggy accessibility, baby changing, and suggestions on making a day out of it are available on my review of their last exhibition, Jacqueline Wilson.