Tommy, Teddy, and I spent our first full day in London at the British Museum, home to the Rosetta Stone, the marble statues that once decorated the Parthenon, and about 2 million other objects from every part of the Earth. It is truly one of the great museums of the world and is, like many British museums, completely free.
Now I’d say in general that the British are wonderful about making museums that aren’t automatically kid-friendly more so by offering a wide variety of different activities from worksheets to interactive videos to age-appropriate audio guides. The British Museum is no exception, offering all of these things as well as themed activity backpacks for children aged 5 to 11.
But the boy’s morning had started, I don’t know, six hours before the museum actually opened? And then I got a little turned around getting off the Tube at Tottenham Court Road (every other time I’ve been the museum I’ve arrived from the opposite direction). When we finally walked into the museum I was a little horrified to realize that not only was it chock full of tourists (which I expected) but every school group in London seemed to have descended at the same moment we did. I later learned that the term was nearly done and the schools were fitting in their end-of-year field trips to study the Egyptian antiquities, now part of the national curriculum in Britain. Schools here really do take learning to another level, and why wouldn’t they with all these amazing resources at their fingertips? If you live in London, you can find out what schools are in your catchment area here, and see if the British Museum is one of their end-of-year field trips too.
So instead of fighting my way to the library to pick up any materials for the boys, I made the clutch decision to simply rely on the informative, accurate, and somewhat cheeky tour to the Egyptian and Greek antiquities in Rick Steves’ London, which was happily sitting right in my purse. This turned out to be perfect; we got an overview of what was significant in each room as well as a number of fun stories. Most importantly, the boys didn’t have to work too hard. I led them around and read to them and none of us felt like we had to try and see everything in each room (which would have been very difficult to do).
We started the day in ancient Egypt, elbowing our way to front of the crowd that surrounded the Rosetta Stone and looking at the other sculptures for the many different animals from cats to hippos to be found. I actually took no pictures at all of the fabulous collection of mummies because it was so impossibly crowded in the rooms that housed them.
Even more moving and fascinating than the mummies were the paintings from the tomb of Nebamun which have been gorgeously restored and which show an idealized version of daily life in Egypt circa 1400 B.C. We admired the painting of a wealthy Egyptian doing the thing he most loved – fishing with his wife and daughter – so that they can keep him company for eternity. Other paintings show him hunting, looking at his cattle and geese, and feasting with his friends. We had fun playing I Spy and the boys seemed to really appreciate why someone would want their eternal resting place decorated so splendidly.
After we had returned to the main gallery and looked at the Sphinx’s beard
And various other statues
Then we headed for lunch at Wagamama and a good long run around at the nearby playground Coram’s Fields. Once they had some food them, the boys proved to be surprisingly energetic and our break stretched out over three hours while they “got their wiggles out” and enjoyed some ice cream at the little café (I think I’ve mentioned before how civilized I find the British habit of making sure there’s always a place to have a sweet and a hot cup of tea when one is out playing with one’s children).
Travel-with-kids tip: When you’re visiting a large museum with kids, choose what areas you want to see and make a plan for how you will approach your day. Scheduling a break at a playground after lunch and then returning is a great way to break things up and keep kids fresh and interested (if you’ve had to purchase a ticket, ask at the front desk if you can be readmitted).
When we returned to the museum it was to find that the Greek antiquities were less crowded and much easier to see and thanks to our guidebook we learned about pediments, metopes, and friezes as we admired the detailed carvings that once decorated the Parthenon and tried to imagine how they would have looked vividly painted instead of ghostly white. With the book’s guidance, we carefully circled the large room holding the images that once decorated the frieze. These show a religious procession of the people of Athens and we noticed small details like the fact that even though the people and horses are headed uphill (toward the Parthenon), all of the heads are level.
My favorite moment of the entire day may have been when our guidebook invited us to step behind the famous sculptures that once decorated the Parthenon’s pediment. The book pointed out that even though these sculptures were very high in the air and had their backs out of view, they are still perfectly carved from behind. No one else seemed to realize they could walk back there and the boys, immediately sensing that they had their hidey-hole in this vast museum, settled down to have a good look:
After that I knew that they were “full” and wouldn’t appreciate any more artifacts. So we made our way back to what was once the Reading Room of the British Library (on our first visit to London while we were in graduate school Matt spent a month doing research there – lucky him) and I snapped a few pictures of this impressive public space.
Could we have seen more in this greatest of great museums? Absolutely. But on that day I’m not sure we could have gotten more out of our visit. And sometimes traveling with children – or even without them – is about getting as much out of a given moment as is possible.