My Gallery of the Year: Imagine

February 16, 2012

Kids in Museums, Scotland

“Imagine a place where you can create your own story, make music with your friends, dress up for a party or bring a dragon to life! Or would you rather build a fantasy landscape with castles, animals and trees?” (gallery intro panel)

I’ve made no big secret about just how much I love the new Imagine gallery at the National Museum of Scotland. So much so, in fact, that I nominated it for the Kids in Museums Family Friendly Museum Award. Last weekend the longlist was announced, and I’m delighted to see that the museum has made it on to the list. What better time, then, to review the gallery, for which I’ve drawn on the help of my trusted side-kick #MuseumBaby – he may not be able to talk yet, but before you suggest I’m putting words in to his mouth, actions speak louder than words, I’m just interpreting them for you ;-)

But first, let me give you a quick overview. Imagine is an interactive gallery aimed at families with children aged 8 and under. It’s a bright, bold, colourful space divided into four areas where museum objects are brought to life through creativity, story telling, music, dance, costume and playing. In Create you can nurture your creativity, e.g. by designing geometric patterns, creating a fantasy landscape, building a teapot, or making a mask on a computer touch screen. In Story, you can, for example, create your own story around a mermaid in the sardine tin or teacups from the bottom of the sea, play a racing game with the Tortoise and the Hare, or bury yourself in story corner beanbags with a good book. And in Celebrate you can live it up, e.g. by dressing up in colourful costumes from around the world, making some noise with a variety of musical instruments or stepping stones, or letting a Chinese dragon dance. Throughout the gallery, there are real museum objects on display, which act as a focus for the activities, such as an Islamic panel, an Italian mosaic, afore mentioned mermaid art and shipwrecked teacups, and display cases filled with musical instruments and teapots. Not to forget the giant Chinese dragon hanging from the ceiling. And alongside the objects, there are questions to encourage observation and discussion. But wait, I said there were four areas. Yes, in the middle of the gallery is Play, a space designed especially for babies and toddlers, surrounded by a semi circular seating area, where they can safely play and explore baby friendly activities that reflect the rest of the gallery, e.g. building blocks, a tea set, or percussion instruments. But with supervision, smaller children can also enjoy the rest of the gallery too. So, let me hand over to the boy

Name: #MuseumBaby
Occupation: Gallery Tester
Age: 9 months (at the time of testing)


“I like playing with the tea set and the musical instruments. Mama keeps building towers with the blocks, but I always knock them down again because it’s funny. There’s also lots of things to find behind doors and under flaps. It’s the same things every time I look, but I keep checking, just in case. The seating area is just the right height to practice my walking. I’m pretty good, as long as I have something to hold on to. Sometimes there are adults sitting there, and their legs get in the way, but I just flash them my winning smile and they let me past. Mama wishes the area was more closed off than it is, to stop the older kids running in and tripping over the babies, but I think it’s perfect because it means I can crawl off and explore the rest of the gallery.”


“There aren’t many things for me to play with in this area. Mama is worried about the small pieces the older kids use to make mosaics and fantasy landscapes. I tried playing with the teapots, but the building pieces for that are too big and heavy for me. But I love the computer mask activity because at home Mama won’t let me play with her computer. When I touch the screen here everything changes, it makes me laugh. The monkey with the moustache was especially funny. Mama emailed one of the masks I made to us at home so I can colour it in when I’m older.”


“The shipwrecked teacups are fascinating. I could stare at them in the display case for hours, but Mama gets bored and drags me away. The best bit is the story corner though. There are windows and arches to crawl through, and giant beanbags to throw yourself in to. There’s lots of books to look at. Mama only ever lets me look at the same book though as it’s the only ones made of cardboard. She’s worried I’ll rip the ones made of paper. But the nice lady in the gallery said they were going to get more cardboard books. They also have story bags full of things to do in them. I’m still too small for most of the activities, but Mama uses the hare and the tortoise puppets to make me laugh.”


“This is my favourite area in the gallery. I love all the musical instruments. They make so much more noise than the baby ones. The floor also makes a musical noise when you walk over it. I don’t like the dressing up because all the clothes are too big for me, but the Chinese dragon is fun. I tried to make it move, but I’m not strong enough yet. I will keep trying though. Oh, and they have lots of mirrors. I love mirrors. I could look at myself in the mirror for hours.”

So, there you have it. A firm family favourite all round. My only wish is for more information about the objects on display. I appreciate the minimalist interpretation approach, but as a parent I’d like a cheat sheet for when the questions start coming. Luckily, the boy isn’t old enough to start asking questions just yet. While I have visited many museums that have interactive galleries and take the needs of families into account, I have seen very few that specifically consider the under 5s or under 3s even, so on the strength of that my nomination for a Family Friendly Museum had to go to the National Museum of Scotland and its Imagine gallery. We can’t wait to visit again when we go on holiday to Edinburgh in April!


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