Top 10 UK museums for families for October half term

The UK’s museums are always sure to inspire and inform; this autumn, head out in search of a cultural fix for all the family with our pick of the best.

By Maria Pieri
Published 4 Sept 2019, 15:30 BST
National Museum of Scotland
National Museums Scotland
Photograph by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

1. National Museum of Scotland
Following a 15-year facelift, all eyes are firmly on the National Museum of Scotland. The Edinburgh institution unveiled the last phase of its makeover earlier in the year with three new galleries: Ancient Egypt Rediscovered, Exploring East Asia and Art of Ceramics. Among the fascinating new exhibits, you’ll find a large block chipped from the Great Pyramid of Giza, a double coffin for two children dating from around 175-200 AD and Ancient Egyptian Coptic clothing.
The rest of the museum has plenty to educate and entertain, too. Spread across two buildings (one cool and contemporary, the other polished and palatially Victorian), the museum spans a diverse range of topics including natural history, archaeology, design, technology and the arts. Little ones can ride in a Formula 1 racing simulator; dance on a giant sound board; dress up as a deep-sea diver; or unearth fossils in the palaeontologist's pit. You can even release mini hot air balloons into the museum’s atrium, watching them bob between aeroplanes suspended from the ceiling.

2. Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow
Filled with thousands of mind-boggling exhibits, many of which have been designed with kids in mind, this is one of the most popular attractions in Scotland. Delve deep into its collections and you’ll find everything from a Spitfire fighter plane to shark-tooth swords from Micronesia, plus a mummified man’s head and some pretty weird taxidermy — Sir Roger, the Asian elephant, is the stuffed star attraction.

3. Horniman Museum and Gardens, London
Billed as an anthropological museum, the Horniman is known for its collection of curiosities: there’s a natural history gallery presided over by a walrus; a vast number of musical instruments kids can shake, rattle, and roll; and an aquarium full of colourful fish. Plus, there’s a revolving calendar of family-friendly events, from natural trails around the beautiful gardens to family raves complete with bubbles and banging sound systems. Don’t miss the Brick Wonders exhibition (until 27 October), featuring coral reefs, Egyptian pyramids and more crafted from Lego.

4. Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
After an afternoon spent ogling voodoo dolls, dance masks and ancient axes, you’ll want to head outside to the museum’s pristine lawns for a picnic. There are a bunch of learn-as-you-go trails for little ones to follow — suitable even for those under five — and you also can hire torches for poking around some of the museum’s darkest corners.

5. MK Gallery, Milton Keynes
After a top-to-toe makeover and a sprawling extension, this art museum in Buckinghamshire reopened in the spring to rapturous applause. A vibrant hub of art, cinema and live performances, its new features include an artist-designed playground and a regular programme of child-focused workshops.

6. Tate Liverpool
Opened in 1988, the northern outpost of the Tate family saw a derelict warehouse on the Albert Docks transformed into one of the city’s central hubs of creativity. It’s all about interaction here: the museum’s green screen is always a fun option for families, there are hands-on workshops for kids and free rocket backpacks can be picked up to guide little ones through the constellations display.

7. Nottingham Contemporary
In a city with a thriving alternative scene, this expertly curated art museum does a grand job of entertaining families. Kids can don a free explorer bag as they arrive and sign up to a range of sensory workshops, from crafting sculptures to projecting ‘visual sounds’ onto a wall.

8. Science and Industry Museum
Old steam engines, vintage cars and sleek fighter jets are just some of the exhibits children (and adults) will marvel at in this big-hitter of a museum. Don’t miss ‘The Sun’ (until 5 January) — an epic temporary exhibition that shines a light on the centre of our solar system, with blockbuster simulations of a solar storm and a sunrise over Antarctica.

9. Big Pit National Coal Museum, South Wales
The Big Pit offers an insider’s look at Wales’ once-booming coal industry, retelling the story behind the site. There’s a multimedia tour of a mine to kick things off, but it’s the hugely popular underground stint that wins the rave reviews, sending visitors 300ft below terra firma on a journey through timeworn tunnels with a miner guide.

10. V&A Museum of Childhood, London
Stacked with toys from the last century, this imposing institution in East London is an always-reliable source of nostalgia for grown-ups and kids alike. There are also sensory lights and mirror displays, an indoor sandpit and an educational programme for toddlers, including regular storytelling slots and craft workshops.

Published in the October 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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