Don’t be put off by the impressive display of heavy artillery outside what looks like an impenetrable brick building. Slip down the side – past some helpfully placed picnic tables – and be greeted by really friendly and knowledgeable guides to this free and extremely child-friendly museum in the heart of Chelsea.
Let’s start with attractions for the diddlies. I went down a large buggy-passable ramp where there are mannequins of soldiers in uniforms from times past up to the present day which are replicas and OK to touch (I was told that the precious originals are in class cases on display elsewhere).
The Kids Zone (£2.50 for a one hour session) has facilities for babies – a soft play area with transport as a theme and a series of tables with small blocks and trucks. The emphasis here is not so much on combat but on all the other roles within the army – including an area where you can play at cooking.
What was possibly the main attraction here was an elevated climbing frame for those aged zero to eight years of age with all the nets, inflatables and slides you would expect in a commercially operated indoor adventure playground. Towards the rear there was an arctic area with tiny lights like ice or stars. Rocking horses too. And more soft shapes so that you can build your own camp. The music playing was “Be our guest” from Beauty and Beast. Pictures produced by previous young visitors adorned some of the walls and the kids present all seemed to be having a marvellous time.
As it is almost Jubilee weekend I took a detour into a more grown up display celebrating 60 years of the Queen and her soldiers. The Queen’s army uniform is here in a case here and there are lots of photos of her with troops. I also wondered around areas on the first and second world wars which are probably best for older children or those with a serious interest in all things military. There was an impressive gallery with old oil paintings here too – lots featured horses and one even showed spears in mid air.
The Conflict of Interest area is designed for kids over 12 years of age and covers the period from 1969 in Northern Ireland. I was struck by a large montage photo (theme “Coming home”) of Private Michelle Norris – the first woman to receive the Military Cross. This area had clever interactive computer games where users are presented with a series of timelines, facts and resources and asked to choose whether or not to deploy troops (an electronic display on the wall showed that nearly 80% of recent users had agreed to deployment in Afghanistan).
Tricky subjects like adapting to life at home were tackled here and, on the upside, lots of photos of real soldiers and their families. There was a large floor map with coloured annotations showing all those areas where we had troops deployed in active combat (only two) or on observing and peace keeping missions. There was also a model aeroplane suspended from the ceiling. It was thoroughly modern and very engaging – a million miles from the musty and dusty dull museums of my youth.
Other things that caught my eye as I wandered around (and I only managed to cover a tiny fraction of what is available in the time I had) were the disposal vehicles and the wall of messages to our troops (“Have your say”) which had such touching messages of love and support I was almost moved to tears. In “Changing the world” there was the skeleton of Napoleon’s horse which he abandoned at Waterloo.
In the lower Action Zone there were regular places where you could do interesting things like try on military coats, jackets and hats, stroke toy rats and read about leeches which are bound to interest younger visitors. There were skittle games and interactive panels where you connected wires. I also found a Florence Nightingale exhibition, a display about India Rising, a model of a fearsome looking Zulu warrior and the uniform of Lord Baden-Powell (founder of the Boy and Girl Scouts movement). There were glass cases containing an incredible array of medals and more showing hundreds of tiny toy soldiers.
Back on the ground floor is a current very popular exhibition of “War Horse – Fact and Fiction”. Anyone with an interest in horses would be happy here – even if some of the stories are a bit sad. There are flip up panel games, old film extracts, horse models, an area where you can sit in horse saddles and information about horse anatomy.
There’s a beautifully lit giant wire sculpture of a horse, information about no man’s land and a huge display of small horses to show the significant role that they have played in many army operations. There’s a remembrance wall where you are encouraged to pin your colouring efforts on horse shaped cut outs.
The Base Café offered a good selection of child friendly food and drink options if you forget your picnic – with a good seating area. The shop contained lots of books, models (Airfix and Cobi), toys, clothing (adorable tiny flak jackets and camouflage outfits as well as military inspired pyjamas) and pocket money priced items.
As I wandered along the 10 minutes or so walk back down Franklin’s Row to the King’s Road – on my way to Sloane Square tube station – I came across the Duke of York Square where a number of children were happily playing in the floor fountains – while parents sat on the many stone benches - as it was such a warm and sunny day. It didn’t escape my notice that small folk will also be pleased to see pigeons, a Gelateria Valerie (ice cream!) and lots of bunting for that festive Jubilee feel.
http://www.nam.ac.uk/ - There are lots of family friendly activities and future exhibitions, regular talks on Thursday lunchtimes and a series of lectures with “celebrity” speakers. There’s a sizeable “What’s On” programme leaflet although all of the information is on the web site. Note that there are special family friendly Jubilee weekend events and a “Fighting Fit Fathers’ Day” event on 16th and 17th June. It’s thoroughly worth a visit.