11 tips for visiting London’s Victoria & Albert museum with kids
Perhaps it’s because its neighbours are so obviously family-friendly that I’ve never thought of the Victoria and Albert Museum with kids. But while we’ve visited the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum and the British Museum as well, it’s taken over four years to discover if the V&A is child-friendly.
Well, more fool me. Because although the world’s largest museum of decorative and applied arts doesn’t instantly shout ‘perfect with small kids’, they have such a fabulous and fascinating range, not to mention some very child-friendly activities, that we had huge fun visiting.
So whether you fancy seeing the world’s most important Persian carpet, 16th century English knightly artefacts, golden Buddhas, the costumes from the Lion King, historic court dresses or art and sculpture from the Great Masters, here are my tips on visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum with kids.
1. Go in the side door
It can be quieter to enter by the smaller Exhibition Road entrance from the tunnel attached to the tube at South Kensington, rather than the Grand Entrance on Cromwell Road. There’s a cloakroom there too (prams, pushchairs and child scooters cost £1, as do coats and small bags) and maps as you come in.
Don’t miss seeing the spectacular main entrance though: instead, exit that way and gaze back up the stairs, before walking a short way to the Natural History Museum and the entrance back into the underground.
2. Head straight to the Learning Centre
With a whole array of activities for five to 12-year-olds on different themes, it’s no surprise they’ve won awards. There’s also a special ‘Agent Animal’ backpack for under-fives as well, with six animals to track down in several of the museum galleries. Along with a jigsaw to complete for each, you get six little gadgets making the noise of the animal: huge fun for kids.
You also need ID to leave as a deposit (a credit card or driver’s licence for example) and there is helpfully a little map on the back of the bag with clues for parents on where to find them, so you needn’t wander every single gallery, as well as images of the six animals in case you stumble across multiple elephants. We had completed ours in less than an hour, so also tried out the explorer and adventurer trails with their activity sheets. My daughter loved the challenge of designing her own fantastic beast and sitting on the sofas imagining where she’d fly her magic carpet, as we surveyed the impressive Persian rug.
3. Play dress up
When you drop the backpack back at the Learning Centre, head straight around the corner to the Theatre Collection. As well as some fascinating costumes and miniature stage sets, with impressive detail, there are a dozen outfits for kids to dress up in. Most were gigantic on my petite four-year-old but that was half the fun, and she strolled regally around wearing one cloak before reinventing herself and offering me three wishes.
4. Check out the picnic spot
If you’ve brought your own food, there are also tables in this part of the museum for lunch, along with some seats outside in good weather, as you’re not allowed to eat in the galleries themselves. If not, the cafe has children’s meal deals (a mini baguette with veg pot, fruit and drink) as well as some lovely options for adults. They’re pricy though if you just want a snack – a wrap and salads were £7.50. High chairs are provided in the main and Garden Café.
5. Get outdoors
If you need a break and some fresh air, there’s a garden in the centre to walk (run) around. It’s worth noting that the shallow water, with its gently bubbling fountains, would also be very easy to run straight into if you’ve got an inquisitive toddler. The cafe is on other side.
6. Make a noise (well, some noise)
You’re encouraged not to stand in reverent silence before the exhibits but to discuss, debate, enjoy, and some seats are dotted around to sit as you eye everything up, such as that priceless (possibly flying) carpet. Minnie tested that tacit noise approval to its limit in the Theatre Collection but staff are very welcoming and approving of kids in the museum.
7. Find the interactive elements
Some galleries have more that’s hands on than others – the collection from England 1500-1600 included a carved piece of wood you could touch, a ruff and mailed gauntlet to wear, plus you could design your own coat of arms and email it to yourself. Minnie had to be coaxed away after designing three. Other galleries give you the chance to make a brass rubbing or do a giant puzzle of replica medieval tiles.
8. Make the most of the facilities
There are lifts all around the museum if you have a buggy, as well as some impressive sweeping stairs tucked away near two of the temporary exhibitions. You’ll also find toilets there which are a lot quieter – and bigger – than those than the entrance. There are toilets on all four levels, as well as baby changing on 0, 1, 2 and 4.
9. Save your pennies
Although entrance is free, the exhibitions each have a separate cost (unless you’re a member) but 11-year-olds and under go free and if you’re lucky you might stumble across half-price entry before Christmas. But there is SO much to see, you don’t need to go in unless you really want to. Something like the current Opus Anglicanum: masterpieces of English Medieval embroidery, are almost certainly more fascinating to adults, although my daughter liked the pyschedelic trailer for Revolution.
10. Keep an open mind
But never underestimate what catches a small child’s attention. As we walked through the sculpture gallery, I was quizzed about Greek mythical heroes, Samson wielding the jawbone of an ass and a male nude by Rodin. About the only thing I wasn’t asked about was why none of these disparate statues had any clothes on…
11. Set your imagination free
Keep an eye out for activities taking place during the school holidays such as the Imagination Station. You don’t need to book, just drop in (it’s also free) with activities for all ages including ideas for under-fives. You can get the activity of the day and materials from the staff there which then encourages kids to get out into the museum itself for inspiration and to draw and make their idea.
12. Leave plenty of time
I’d assumed we might while away an hour of the school holidays before heading back home – in the end, we only ran out of steam (and time) after four hours. As it’s quieter than other nearby museums – both fewer children, although we certainly weren’t the only family, and fewer visitors in total – you can also pack a lot more in without battling the crowds.
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