As a parent, I’ve always relied heavily on museums to keep the kids entertained and myself sane at the same time. While living in central London in a tiny flat with a toddler and an infant, the Natural History Museum and Science Museum became like second homes to us – both have several dedicated discovery spaces for younger visitors, plus family amenities galore, and are free except for certain elements (such as temporary exhibitions and the Science Museum’s IMAX cinema). And despite having visited them a good two dozen times with my boys, they’re so vast that we still don’t feel we’ve even begun to get the measure of these wonderful institutions.
Moving to Manchester, we naturally spent time getting to know our new city’s great museums: the Museum of Science and Industry and Manchester Art Gallery are both free and extremely child-friendly. But we’ve always had a particular soft spot for the Manchester Museum, which is both old-fashioned in that, like the British Museum, it has a very wide remit, taking in everything from ancient Egyptian mummies to live reptiles and amphibians in its Vivarium, and modern, with lots of interactive elements and plenty else for younger visitors, including free backpacks, themed monthly activity days, and a Play+Learn (and indoor picnic) area.
So it was with great pleasure that we attended the opening of the Museum’s new Living Worlds gallery, an old favourite of ours in a stunning Victorian gallery, now reworked for the 21st century. Gone are the Victorian classification systems and static nature of the displays, in favour of more dynamic themed offerings conceived by European art and fashion-show producer villa eugénie, which invite visitors to think more deeply about the natural world and our place within it (human skeletons are now grouped with those of apes, for instance). Flashy neon signs above the traditional display cases highlight these themes.
Naturalist Steve Backshall was the special guest at the launch, and the short speech he gave was truly inspirational to my eight and six year olds, who are obsessed with his TV show ‘Deadly 60’. Steve recounted how it was visits as a child to a museum such as the Manchester Museum that fired his imagination and inspired his career and his travels – including the attempt, in his early 20s, to walk across New Guinea alone. His words seemed to genuinely have an impact on them, both in terms of thinking about the importance of museums in their lives and in appreciating the opportunities that might be open to them – Steve, they had realised, was once a little kid in a museum, just like them. I was also glad that University president, Dame Nancy Rothwell, took the opportunity in her own speech to stress the importance of museums such as this one in teaching children about conservation.
At the end of the evening, we had the chance to meet Steve very briefly and tell him how much we enjoyed his speech, which he seemed to genuinely appreciate. However, even shaking his hero’s hand paled in my eldest son’s eyes with the opportunity to handle his favourite animal, a chameleon, in the Vivarium. And to my surprise, at the age of 42 and only on the absolute insistence of my sons, I found myself touching a snake for the first time ever.
Fired up by their animal encounters (and a recent school trip to an otter and owl sanctuary), the boys settled in the Play+Learn area on the top floor, where they drew furiously while I enjoyed some of the fresh curry and a glass of wine and chatted with other parents about how museums have changed since we were children and about how crucial they are in inspiring kids – not least boys of around my sons’ age, for whom schoolwork can start to seem a chore and a bore.
For more on child-friendly museums, see our tips on Visiting Museums with Kids and our feature Top 10 Museums for Families in Europe.