Meet a Museum Family #5

July 2, 2015

Kids in Museums

In my new blog series ‘Meet a Museum Family’,  I interview other museum loving families, asking them to share their experiences and tips with my readers. I am really delighted with the positive response the series has been getting. So far, we’ve heard from Melanie in CopenhagenAmanda in Australia,  Mar in England, and Ania in Copenhagen. This week, we travel back to England to talk to Katharine.

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1. Why don’t you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your family

My name is Katharine, I am a freelance educator at the Imperial War Museums and an Explainer at the Horniman Museum. I’ve always been into learning, all types of learning. The UK National Schools Curriculum focuses on one type of learning, “it focuses strongly on knowledge and emphasises the need for young people to demonstrate their learning of key facts” (CLA, 2015) . For families, museums are places for learning and thinking differently, with no pressure to perform, no curriculum and no tests, and for me, that’s what makes them so exciting. I am a museum blogger. My blog is called Art-e-facts: encounters with objects in museums.  Those of you who read my blog may recognise some of our museums visits in my answers to these questions. I don’t review exhibitions. It’s a kind of journal, reflecting on visits to museums, with objects being at the heart of each post. What better way to inspire people to visit museums and galleries than to show them some of their incredible collections. My aim is to inspire people to visit. One of the best comments I had was from a guy who said, “I often don’t ‘get’ art. But I think I could get this.” That comment made my day, I want people to get museums. I enjoy writing and would like to develop this somehow, any ideas? I used to be an teacher (secondary) and got into museum learning after I had my kids, starting a PhD at the I.O.E. researching intergenerational learning. I’m hoping to finish it (I will, I will, I will) in December. I have four kids and live in London. They’ve been great for throwing up learning issues and highlighting just how learning happens. My youngest two are twins and watching how they both learn has been really eye-opening, as they are so different. Being the same age, it has been fascinating to see how they approach things, both at school and in museums. All my kids are at secondary school now, but they’ve been very gracious to me on my museum learning journey. They still come with me!


Newton Abbot Museum GWR Room


2. How old were your kids when you first started taking them to museums?

When my kids were very young, we spent a lot of time at the Horniman Museum, local to us. We remember the aquarium in all its incarnations and it also used to have live snakes and lizards. However I began taking my kids to museums regularly after I had spent a couple of terms flexi-schooling my daughter, then aged nine. Every Thursday I took her out of school and we went to a museum or gallery. We both loved it, with highlights being the V&A (the Silver Gallery),  and the Hayward Gallery, Psycho Buildings. It was moment at Down House, the home of Charles Darwin, that started me off with my research into learning in museums. Expecting her to write about the ‘Origin of Species’, finches, barnacles, etc, she wrote, “Charles Darwin had a sister called Emily”. I (shouldn’t have) found this so unexpected. What was going on? With that began my research.

3. Do you remember visiting museums as a child?

I remember many museums from my childhood. I’ve revisited some of them with my own children and blogged about them. Chi Chi the Giant Panda in the Natural History Museum hasn’t changed from my childhood, still in the same diorama, you can read about it on my blog . I also remember visiting Tring Museum, which I still love, an Aladdin’s cave of stuffed animals. I have fond memories of the Commonwealth Institute in London which doesn’t exist anymore and also of the RAF Museum in Hendon, it was the mannequins, not the planes, that captivated me.


Vimy Ridge


4. Why do museums matter to you?

Museums matter to me for the very reasons mentioned above and of course they’re place to have fun. I want my kids to experience and value other ways of learning (beyond the classroom). Museums provide different experiences of learning, they are places to think, to understand, to develop ideas and values, plus get to know ourselves and others more. Museums are great places to see a broader picture of the world outside of our own experience. Last year we went to the the trenches at Vimy Ridge, a First World War Canadian battle site in Northern France. We had a tour guide and my son, aged eleven, asked him what happened if the soldiers, “ran away” from the front line. It was a poignant moment, it showed empathy for the situation the soldiers faced. I was so glad that the guide did not shirk the answer, “You were shot by your own”.

5. What was the last museum you visited as a family

The last museum we visited a family was Newton Abbot Museum in Devon. Its real name is the Newton Abbot Town and Great Western Railway Museum. It’s a small regional museum with big stories. We spent a long time in the GWR room.  The museum is in the ground floor of a large town house and in order to fit a (working) railway signal into the room, they had dug down into the floor to fit it in. The volunteers there were very welcoming and really enthusiastic about their local history. It was very well done, stories were well told. It inspired all three generations of us, we went with my mum. What I learnt there is that the history of the British railways is a very emotive thing.

HMS Belfast

HMS Belfast


6. What is your favourite museum to visit as a family?

I let my kids answer this question and for the younger two it was the Grant Museum hands down. They love it and when we go, we usually take friends who they like to show around. We were worried that it would lose something when it moved building, but it hasn’t. It is still a treat to rummage around and discover the weirdest creatures for yourself. Plus their Micrarium has to be the best ever place to take a #MuseumSelfie. My son loves the giant spider crab. My oldest child, now an adult, loves the Design Museum and we’ve been to a few of the ‘Designs of the Year’ exhibitions. It’s a competition and we all choose different designs to win.

7. What is your favourite museum memory as a family?

I asked my kids this question and I got loads of answers. They have so many good memories; Swimming on the roof of the Hayward Gallery (Ernesto Neto exhibition), Museum of London – Victorian Walk (they played shops there for ages), HMS Belfast, the Geffrye Museum at Christmas, Designs of the Year (when we bought the ‘Chineasy’ book). But it was my mum who remembered the funniest experience. An impromptu Punch & Judy show that my youngest son put on for us at the Teignmouth and Shaldon Museum, her local museum, where there is a Punch & Judy tent and puppets for visitors to use. He kept a whole crowd of visitors amused.

Punch & Judy at Teignmouth Museum

Punch & Judy at Teignmouth Museum


8. If your kids could create a museum, what would it be about?

Here’s what they said…
1. Brains: A museum about thinking, philosophy with real brains.
2. A museum about made up things: “A museum about a fantasy historical event, in our shed. We could make things up about history. You won’t know if it’s real or imaginary.” I asked for an example. “It could be about King Billy-Bob, 1732, from France. We could have his collection of sunglasses and cherry seeds from his cherry tree.” Before you think this is implausible, we have seen the ‘Lost Tomb of Sir George Gellatly’, a tribute to museums of old, in a local arts festival in Telegraph Hill, London. It must have made more of an impact on them than I realised.

9. If your family could live in a museum which one would you choose?

They would like to live in the (old) Grant Museum because “it’s weird”. It was a favourite. They also suggested the Geffrye Museum as they would like to spend time living in different times in all the different rooms. But they did note that you could only watch TV in the 1950s.


A recent trip to Tate Modern


10. And finally, what advice do you have for other families on how to make museum visits run more smoothly?

The one thing that makes the most difference to us is being at a museum when it’s less busy. When the kids were young it meant I could keep an eye on them, give them a little freedom to look at things by themselves, keeping them in sight. This was a priority with four kids, two of whom were young twins. When it’s quiet, there seems to be more space to stop, look and chat and you don’t feel you have to move on to let someone else have a look. It makes for a much less stressed more enjoyable experience. This doesn’t mean you have to go to less well known museums, even the big museums have quiet spaces.

  • Go when it’s quieter, usually at opening time. But in the case of the London Transport Museum, go late, we nearly had the place to ourselves one late afternoon.
  • Head to the quieter galleries, usually upstairs, to the galleries without the celebrity exhibits. I had a gallery all to myself at the British Museum the other day, Greek and Roman architecture on the lower floor.
  • Visit local museums. I have never been to a busy local museum, mores the pity. Then encourage others to go too.
  • Take your kids’ friends. It may mean taking more kids but somehow it seems easier. I have a few kids that I always ask on museum trips in the holidays. We all seem to get more out of our visit and somehow being with friends makes for better behaviour (for my own kids).
  • Ask if they have activities for families. There may be something on, or they may have trails.
  • Ask about packed lunch areas. Hats off to the British Museum who let families have picnics in the schools lunch area at weekends.
  • Talk to staff and volunteers. They often know a lot about the objects. Volunteers I have met in regional museums have been so enthusiastic and this can be quite infectious.
  • (Museums might not thank me for this but… ) If it’s just us, all six of us, I always challenge them about their family ticket if it doesn’t work for us. Where has this idea of two adults two kids, or one adult three kids come from? I ask museums why their family ticket cannot cater for our family. One museum told me that it was, “to stop people turning up with seven kids.” I smiled, said nothing. But in my head, I rejoiced at the idea of someone bringing seven kids to a museum. Good on them, all the energy and enthusiasm they would need to get seven kids to a museum. How brilliant that someone would do this, investing time taking kids to museums. We should be celebrating those people, welcoming them in with open arms, not creating a ticketing system that makes them feel unwelcome at the very start of their visit. If you’re reading this and have responsibility for ticketing, not being able to buy a family ticket for your family because you have four children, does not make you feel welcome. However many museums, and I won’t let on who, have let us in with their family ticket even though technically they shouldn’t have.

Here are my kids’ ideas for a great museum visit:

  • Bring chocolate
  • “Let us touch”
  • Bring a friend
  • Take a phone with a camera with filters and apps on it (this refers to a very successful visit we had to Tate Britain)

Thank you so much to Katharine for taking the time to answer my questions! Some great tips and insights there. I will definitely remember to bring chocolate on our next museum visit ;)  If you would like to read more about Kathariane’s ‘encounters with objects in museums’, check out her blog Art-e-facts’ or connect with her on Twitter

If YOU are a museum loving family and would like to take part in the ‘Meet a Museum Family’ interview series, just get in touch! And for other tips about taking children to museums, and recommended museums to visit, check out the ‘Kids in Museums‘ section of my blog. Thanks for reading!

All photographs in this post courtesy of Katharine Alston


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