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Unusual Museums: Fascinate Your Kids in London

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Written by Tim Barnes-Clay

One advantage of our digital age: kids are constantly reading and writing. It’s not a language that will get them too far in school, but it’s something to work with. As parents, we just need to give them something worthwhile to read and write about.

Annoyingly, technology can also make this harder. With so many distractions, it is worth asking how we can interest children in genuinely educational experiences. The same old ancient stones and portrait galleries just won’t cut it.

To keep minds sharp in summer, you need to find the perfect mixture of Insta-worthy and enlightening. This is where London’s collection of unusual museums come into their own. There’s something bizarre and/or fascinating for every interest and age group.

1. Horniman Museum

Instagram loves a Merman. Probably. Seeing one is definitely a talking point, if nothing else, and the Horniman Museum is the rare place that gives you the chance to do so.

World-famous for its natural history collection, which combines impressive taxidermy with skeletons and specimens preserved in fluid, the Horniman also houses an aquarium, an animal walk, and some of the city’s most beautiful gardens, which play host to events and film screenings throughout the summer.

2. Grant Museum of Zoology

What can be better for the brain than looking at brains? Well, there’s looking at a jar full of preserved moles, of course, and the antlers of an extinct giant deer (which are twice as wide as the creature was tall!) can’t be ignored. Oh, and don’t forget about the beneficial effects of looking at a Quagga skeleton, the rarest in the world. They’re all at University College London’s Grant Museum of Zoology, so don’t be squeamish: go!

3. Ragged School Museum

Once a month, the Ragged School Museum invites visitors to become students in an original Victorian classroom, restored to appear as it did in the 1870s. With costumed teachers, dunce-hats and blackboards, this might just persuade your children that their school isn’t all that bad. Keep it secret, but a 45-minute brush-up on the ‘three Rs’ can’t hurt either!

4. Churchill War Rooms

Hidden beneath the streets of Westminster is an underground world of incomparable historical significance. It was from here that Churchill and his cabinet led the country through the darkest days of the Second World War all the way to victory. Offering a rare chance to travel through time, The Map Room is unchanged from 1945.

With exhibits about Churchill’s life and the lives of those who spent thousands of hours working – and sleeping – underground to aid the war effort, this is a fantastic, unusual way to enhance your children’s understanding of WWII history.

5. The Golden Hinde II

A short distance from the Globe Theatre, this reconstruction of Sir Francis Drake’s famous ship is an unmissable piece of Tudor history. Like the original, it has circumnavigated the globe. It’s also appeared in four films, which is something its 16th century forebear didn’t manage. That ship did capture the equivalent of £480,000,000 of treasure, though – which is enough to make at least five films.

By far the best way to experience the ship is with a guided tour, which gives young ones all the information they need to become an adventurer or pirate in the mould of the dashing, heroic Drake.

6. Dennis Severs’ House

Put your phones away. No, really: put your phones away. Now, where did all the 18th Century people go? Someone got up from this chair, it can’t have been more than minutes ago, and – well, they’ve disappeared.

Quiet; is that them on the stairs? (Seriously: be quiet – this isn’t the best place for the very young: tours are conducted in near-silence). And something is cooking, I’m sure. It’s so strange: I didn’t realise you could step inside paintings, quite honestly, let alone smell food in them.

Ahem. I’m not sure who that was. Anyway, Dennis Severs’ House isn’t just unusual, it’s utterly unique. A series of ten ‘spells’ that tantalise visitors with the history of the silk-weaving Jervis family from 1724-1914, it’s not an experience that can be easily translated into words. A VR prototype, the chance to occupy the paintings of old masters, or a walk-through poem – however you interpret it, it’s something you won’t forget.

Before you know it, you and your kids will be back among the digitised ‘spells’ of our own time. Just try to remember the house motto: ‘you either see it or you don’t’.