Museums can be excellent family days out and encourage kids to think for themselves. Rhonda Carrier chooses 10 of the best UK and European museums for kids.
At the reopening of the Manchester’s Museum’s Living Worlds gallery, naturalist Steve Backshall remarked that it was visits to museums as a child that fired his imagination and inspired his career and his travels.
Museums are not just places to entertain the kids on a rainy day for parental sanity, although they serve that purpose admirably. In an age of rote learning and over-assessment, they can be brilliant – and often free – places to encourage kids to think for themselves and to engage with different cultures and topics in a playful way, away from classroom stresses.
With so many venues excelling in their various fields, it’s impossible to choose a top 10 of European museums, but these are some of my personal recommendations for great places to visit with kids in major cities in Europe.
National Maritime Museum, London
Its location in historic Greenwich means that this museum never gets the queues that blight more central venues such as the British Museum, Natural History Museum and Science Museum in the school holidays. The whole place is rammed with hands-on displays about the sea and sea-faring, but you might end up missing most of the rooms in favour of the new under-8s space AHOY!, the older children’s gallery and the glass-roofed atrium in which kids can scamper about on a vast interactive floor-map, using free tablets to plot their adventures. Step outside and you’re in gorgeous Greenwich Park, for more running amok…
Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester
MOSI, as it’s known, is a dream of a museum, with a Victorian sewer you can crawl though (accompanied by authentically atrocious sounds and smells), a 4D theatre and a motion-simulator ride – all these in addition to one of the biggest collections of working steam engines in the world, plus fascinating displays on flight, aerospace exploration, electricity and plenty more besides. In term of events and activities, there’s always something different going on, but try to time your visit so you can ride the steam train across this site that formed that the world’s first-ever passenger train station.
Clos Lucé, Loire Valley
On a much smaller, cosier scale, this 15th-century mansion is where Leonardo da Vinci spend his last three years. Inside is an exhibition on his daily life (his bed-chamber, study and kitchen) and his work (a basement display of models of his inventions), but it’s what lies in its parkland that is of most interest – life-size reconstructions of some of Da Vinci’s inventions. Interactive by their very nature, they include military machines, the Archimedes screw, the swing-bridge, the parachute, the paddleboat and the helicopter. A suitably imaginative playground, crêperie and tea-room, and picnic area make this a day-out destination.
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Kids’ audio-tours taking ages 6–12 on the trail of specific paintings denoted by butterfly icons, including ‘Wheatfield with Crows’ and ‘The Potato-Eaters’ make this airy modern museum accessible to kids – although you’ll have a head-start if you let them in on the legend of the artist’s ear-lopping incident. There’s also an app revealing what lies beneath the paint on some of Van Gogh’s canvases – including grains of real sand in his ‘Seascape near Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer’. The cafe has great views over the Museumplein to enjoy as you sup your hot chocolademelk.
Fundacio Joan Miró, Barcelona
Looking at the playful, Surrealist works by the Catalan painter, sculptor and ceramicist is a great way of getting kids interested in art – and there’s a vast collection within this contemporary light-flooded museum. Family workshops and activities are wholly in Catalan, but the art is so quirky you’ll have no problems getting the kids engaged – especially on the roof terrace, where Mirós colourful assemblages are accompanied by panoramic city views (the venue is on Montjuic hill, with access – another bonus – by thrilling cable-car or funicular ride).
MACHmit! Museum, Berlin
Museums designed specifically for kids can be stultifying and/or exhausting for adults, but this one, occupying a converted church with a climbing structure built into its old tower, is different – displays cover all manner of curiosities from the history of fairytales to historic printing methods, all of them hands-on. The café serves mainly organic fare, while surrounding Prenzlauer Berg is a hip neighbourhood popular with young families, filled with playgrounds, street markets, art studios and designer boutiques.
This spectacular venue occupies several buildings within Paris’ glorious Botanical Gardens –worth a day out in themselves for their mini-zoo, maze and quirky Ménage du Dodo carousel with extinct and endangered species to ride. If you only have time for one museum, make it the Grande Galerie de l’Evolution with its atmospheric neon-lit displays of stuffed animals and kids’ zone for 6-12-year-olds, all in a breathtaking glass-roofed 19th-century hall. There are also the Galeries de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie Comparée, with skeletons, preserved organs, shells and fossils, and the Galerie de Minéralogie et de Géologie with its humongous crystals.
Uffizi Gallery and Loggia del Lanzi, Florence
The Tuscan capital isn’t the most obvious destination with young kids, but much of it resembles an open-air gallery, and wandering round ogling statues with a gelato in hand and the sun shining down on you is a very pleasant way to take in its rich antique and Renaissance heritage. Don’t miss the Loggia dei Lanzi adjoining the Uffizi Gallery – an alfresco sculpture gallery including two Medici lions, which you can wander around for free. The mighty Uffizi itself is best approached on an Art Firenze for Families walk by award-wining Context Travel, with an art historian personally discussing recurring subjects, themes and symbols with kids.
National Museum of Denmark and Frilandsmuseet, Copenhagen
Extending over several sites, this child-friendly venue covers Danish cultural history from the reindeer hunters of the Ice Age to today. The main central Copenhagen venue at Ny Vestergade 10 includes its very own children’s museum for ages 4–10, while the Frilandsmuseet on the city outskirts is a summer-only outdoor museum with more than 100 historical buildings brought here from the Danish countryside, plus lots of cute rabbits, pigs and other farm animals to pet. Handy little trolleys are provided to pull tots around in.
New Acropolis Museum, Athens
A rare site that is more impressive in the flesh than in photographs, the Acropolis is a must-see with kids in the Greek capital – but be sure to visit the New Acropolis Museum first to make the most of it. Head first for the top floor, where a video presentation brings the history of the site to life, showing how it came to be and how it was destroyed by fire and by various looters, including Lord Elgin. In the main galleries, strengthened glass floors and cameras mean you can watch the past being brought to life in the form of live restoration work.Rhonda Carrier is the commissoning editor for Kids in Museums, an independent charity dedicated to making museums open and welcoming to all families.
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