Dressing up at the Museum of English Rural Life
Dressing up at the Museum of English Rural Life
Museum of English Rural Life
Museum of English Rural Life
The Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture
The Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture
John Soane’s Museum
John Soane’s Museum
John Soane’s Museum
John Soane’s Museum
John Soane’s Museum
John Soane’s Museum
Hunterian Museum
Hunterian Museum

Hidden Gems

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Kids in Museums has been out and about seeking some small, unusual and free museums off the usual tourist trail. Take a look at these hidden gems of the museum world – you might find just the right one for your Half Term Family Trip…

Visiting a small museum with free admission isn’t just about saving money, it’s often a very special experience. You feel you’ve found a secret place, the staff or volunteers have time for a chat, the size is not overwhelming, and if you need to feel bad about making your visit very short.

Finding places to visit can be fun or frustrating. Some of the Kids in Museums Family Friendly Award winners are small and free so do check out our website, search the web with some key words and ask at the local tourist office. Mumsnet is helpful, and of course there is word of mouth so chat to your friends and family.

Admission might be free but these places still need funding to survive so if you’ve enjoyed your visit and see a donations box, do teach your children about charitable giving by sparing a few coins.

In the UK many universities have museums or interesting buildings which are open to the public and free. Universities are much friendlier these days than they used to be and have better facilities. The collections can be very specialised and quirky, which is part of their attraction but always check the opening hours, as they might be quirky too.

Kids in Museums Volunteer, Rose Silvester, discovered these surprising museums on her visits to Reading, Bristol and Exeter…

Museum of English Rural Life (MERL)

The last place you’d expect to find a Museum of English Rural Life is in a busy town like Reading but there it is, part of the University of Reading and wonderfully family friendly. The collections cover farming, rural crafts and industries, and countryside life from 1850 to 1950. You can find wagons and ploughs, smocks and baskets, dairy and beekeeping equipment.

There’s plenty to do on a normal visit but there’s also a lively programme of special events, especially in school holidays. October half term 2011 is packed with drop-in activities and workshops aimed at families. The weekly Toddler Time was so popular they started a morning session for the toddlers who nap in the afternoons. I really like the special Family Friendly page on their website.

I particularly like MERL’s approach to food. There’s no café, but they provide a visitor’s room where you can eat your packed lunch and buy drinks. There’s a lovely garden with picnic tables too. Meanwhile, the University café next door has highchairs, baby changing facilities and will serve child-sized portions of meals. From the moment you enter MERL you know you are in a family friendly space, so relax and enjoy it.

University of Bristol Theatre Collection

Don’t even think of bringing young children here, but if you have a theatre-mad teenager a visit to the University of Bristol Theatre Collection could be great with a bit of advanced planning. They have a very small exhibition area, but as most of the collections are in special stores you can’t just wander around. So, well ahead of a visit you need to study the online catalogue and contact the staff to ensure the material you want to see is available. Be sensible and specific about the amount you’ll be able to look at, but this could be just the thing to kick start a school project or stimulate further research. Archives can be magical and exciting places and giving your teenager a taste of using them could be memorable for you both. The collections here are very wide ranging: artworks, costumes, photographs, letters, papers from the London Old Vic, set designs by Alan Tagg, scripts from TV show Skins…

Complete your Bristol outing with a visit to the nearby Arts Quarter with Banksy street art, vintage and craft shops and cafés.

The Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture

Exeter University has a fascinating collection relating to the history of film and visual media. The Bill Douglas Centre houses collections of artefacts, ephemera, books and prints and it is both a public museum with displays, and an academic research centre.

“From shadow puppets to Shirley Temple dolls, from magic lanterns to Marilyn Monroe postcards, there is something to fascinate every visitor.”

Like Bristol’s Theatre Collection it is not usually open at weekends but the next FREE Family Fun Day is on Saturday 29th October 2011 from 12-4pm. This will feature a children’s magic lantern show with two performances by ‘Professor’ Mervyn Heard, one of the UK’s foremost lanternists and other hands-on and fun activities for families.

Kids in Museum’s volunteer, Maggie Monteath, has been visiting some small, free museums in London…

John Soane’s Museum

I’ve told so many people about this fascinating museum that it’s probably no longer a hidden gem! You’ll find it at No. 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, less than 5 minutes walk from Holborn tube. The architect John Soane designed this house in the early nineteenth century, not only to live in but also as a setting for his collection of antiquities and works of art. And what a wonderfully eclectic collection (with a delightful lack of labels) you’ll find as you wander around the lower floors of the house. Squeezing into the tiny art gallery you’ll be intrigued at the innovative way the paintings are hung and hardly able to believe you’re actually looking at such famous pictures as Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress.

Descending further you can’t miss the alabaster sarcophagus of the Egyptian Pharaoh Seti I. The story goes that this sarcophagus stood outside the British Museum for many months – having just purchased the Elgin Marbles they were in no position to pay for it. Eventually John Soane bought it instead and, as with all his new acquisitions, held a celebration party for his friends around it. Imagine them standing just where you might stand today.

Hunterian Museum

Knowing this museum is part of the Royal College of Surgeons might make you think it’s not for the faint hearted, but when you walk in the most striking feature is the Crystal Gallery. No, these aren’t mineral samples but more than 3,000 specimen jars containing various human and animal anatomical specimens, beautifully illuminated and displayed on glass shelves like sparkling works of art. Other displays show you the history of anatomy and surgery and the work of the eighteenth century surgeon John Hunter. Along the way you’ll see lots of surgical instruments (you’ll be glad they are no longer in use) as well as an intriguing range of exhibits including the skeleton of the ‘Irish Giant’, Winston Churchill’s dentures and even a small art gallery.

I’d recommend visiting on a Wednesday, starting your visit with the excellent curator-led guided tour at 1pm. The kids on the tour I went on were loving it! I must admit to being a bit squeamish and I did give the heart operation video a miss on my way round. However I was still able to go out for a most enjoyable meal after my visit.

Museum of the Order of St John

What a surprise to discover the castle-like remnants of the old Clerkenwell Priory hiding amid modern office buildings just a short walk from Farringdon tube. If your children are excited by knights and crusades and love history, this museum is just the place for a short visit next time you’re in the area. The history of the Order spans more than ten centuries, making links with Saladin, the Ottoman Turks, Suleiman the magnificent, the Tudors, the Victorians as well as both World Wars. In short it puts famous people and periods of history familiar from school into context.

Pause at the excellent video timeline introduction before venturing into galleries featuring a variety of artefacts from the past, including armour, swords and medals, and learning how to fire a cannon. I loved the objects placed in situ on the Mediterranean map. There’s also dressing up, modestly priced toys in the shop and the kids will love the anatomical charts outside the loos.

You can extend your visit a few steps up the road to The Priory Church of the Order of St John. I guarantee the children will love the suitably musty crypt and the chance to get up close with some Tudor Tombs. You’ll find plenty of cafés around Clerkenwell Road to complete your day out.

Wesley’s Chapel

Here’s another surprise of a museum very close to Old Street tube – in fact from the Museum of the Order of St John you can walk to Old Street in less than 30 minutes. This time familiar periods of history are put into the context of the story of the Wesley family. This covers much of 18th century history including crime and punishment, slavery, the American colonies, missionaries and Gin Lane – you’ll see lots of familiar images.

Despite the somewhat formal set-up the staff are friendly and helpful, particularly the enthusiastic guides who will not only point out the main features and show you some of the Wesley’s personal belongings but also encourage you to stand in John Wesley’s pulpit and take you to Wesley’s Chapel and Georgian Town House (all on the same site). I loved the inventive extra seating in the chapel, the pair of shoes with no left or right and the famous chamber horse. Make sure you have a ride!

Afterwards cross the road to Bunhill Fields to find the graves of famous ‘Dissenters’ such as William Blake, Daniel Defoe and John Bunyan. An information leaflet is available in the museum. You can also buy a children’s guide to the chapel site in the museum shop.

If you know of any other family friendly hidden gems, tell us about them in the comment section below.

7 Responses

  1. MariaBarrett Says:

    Warrington Museum is fab – a small human scale museum built on a Victorian gentleman’s collection but with interaction befitting the 21st century. There are several really good collections, including rocks and gemstones, children’s clothing, and my daughter’s favourite, the astronomy collection. We always get engrossed and have never yet seen the whole thing, even though it’s small. And they often do special day events and activities too.

  2. Carol Parker Says:

    Ayscoughfee Hall Museum & Gardens in Spalding, Lincs. Free and has wonderful outside space with coffee shop and play area. Regular events throughout the year inc. Big Draw and interactive installation in the grounds.

  3. Anra Kennedy Says:

    Brighton’s Booth Museum of Natural History is lovely quiet, small and packed with stuff – inc lots of Victorian dioramas that look old-fashioned but can really captivate children from toddlers up. Skeletons and fossils go down well too. The local junior RSPB group, the Starlings, meets at the museum once a month too.
    http://www.brighton-hove-rpml.org.uk/Museums/boothmuseum/Pages/home.aspx

  4. Alison Hilton Says:

    Thanks for including MERL in this great article. Unfortunately there is no longer a drinks machine in the visitor room, but the University café next door does much better coffee! We always do our best to make families feel welcome and we’re really pleased that lots of local families visit us regularly after school and at weekends to make the best of our garden and free activities. The games and toys on the magic carpet are particularly popular with our youngest visitors and everyone loves the rat trail. The beautiful new toy farm in the temporary exhibition area has been a great success too, allowing grown-ups to browse the Archers exhibition while the little ones play! (Alison, MERL Marketing Officer)

  5. Tim Nuttall Says:

    Hidden behind Rochdale’s 1930s fire station (soon to be replaced), and next to Rochdale railway station, is the Greater Manchester Fire Service Museum. Run by ex-fire service personnel who have a real passion for their subject, this museum crams more than is possible into its small space. ‘Big toys’ include fully restored fire engines, some of which still take to the road, and small exhibits – including a tunic button from the tunic of the man who invented the modern fire service. There are replicas of a Victorian fire station, and a mockup of a World War 2 Blitz firefighting scene.

    The museum recently gained VAQAS status from Enjoy England. It has a fully accredited education programme for schools and groups, but is also just a fun place for families. Open every Friday afternoon and the first Sunday of each month – the Sunday openings are always family days with displays and other activities. And it’s free.

  6. Elee Kirk Says:

    I absolutely love the newly re-vamped (and moved) Grant Museum of Zoology in UCL in London. It’s quite old fashioned-looking, but also quite humourously displayed, with a row of skeletons leaning on the balcony overhead and looking down on the visitors. Some of the weirder specimens on display include jars stuffed with a particular species, such as one that seems to have about 50 pickled moles in it. I think any kid with a fascination for the natural world and a slightly kooky sense of humour would be in there element here.
    It’s quite a small museum. I don’t think you would spend more than an hour here, and probably a lot less. There is no cafe, but it’s right in the heart of London, and if you can’t find anywhere else to eat then you’re either very fussy or not looking very hard!

  7. Melanie Says:

    Greater Manchester Police Museum & Archive is hidden away on Newton Street in the centre of Manchester. Only open on Tuesdays for most of the year but it is open for longer in the school holidays. Retired police officers are brilliant and insightful volunteers and children get the feel for what a working police station, court room, and of course prison cells look like with fantastic tours from volunteers.

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