Tuesday 20 March 2012

Toddling on the Heath

Today Culturebaby took Grandma and Grandad to Kenwood House for Grandma's birthday. It's a fabulous Robert Adam 18th Century Neo-Classical House at the Highgate end of Hampstead Heath. For the lovers of chick flicks, it is also the house where Julia Roberts films the Henry James novel in Notting Hill. (Incidentally I'm currently wading through Henry James' The Portrait of A Lady with my book club (or rather swimming against the tide). I must confess, at risk of being thrown out of nerds-anonymous, it's not really recommended reading for mummies like me of the post-birth squishy brain variety; rather slow moving for those 5 minute breaks here or there).

It is supposed to be the last day of winter today but it was gorgeous; sunny, warm and very spring-like. Culture-baby was in her new pushchair pram attachment and was clearly loving being able to see more than just sky and the the odd overhead tree! There is something magical about this part of London, and about a country house in the city - you feel rather up above it all - and there were hundreds of babies around in slings and prams being taken for walks on the Heath (although at times we felt rather like we had stumbled into a Bugaboo convention).

We went round the house with the sling (NB no prams allowed inside) and it was a refreshingly different experience for Culturebaby from our visits to other more modern art galleries. Kenwood has an important collection of Georgian British and European Art. These are not to everyone's taste. Other than the Turner, they don't really flick Grandad's switch, but, despite this genetic predisposition, Culturebaby seemed to be enjoying herself. The house has big windows and mirrors, lots of light, sparkling chandeliers and colourful walls. Although the art is rather formal in style, some of the large portraits were a hit. It made me look at them in a different way too to see what caught her eye - the use of light, the striking features (men with shiny armour and large moustaches, women with shiny gowns, smiling children), the large scenes of animals... In particular, she started a conversation with a large picture of three babies (The Infant Academy). It was as if she recognised them as peers (or perhaps she was questioning the artistic precociousness or dodgy choice of hat?)

There was something to see from every angle and Culturebaby spent a lot of time craning her neck to look up and around (the library is rather exciting with its mirrors and painted ceiling). Other than the portraits, there were a number of shiny clocks with moving parts that fascinated her, and a rather attention-grabbing spangly collection of georgian jewelled shoe buckles.

The property is busy getting a bit of a make-over at present, so there is some scaffolding, and other parts of the house are still rather in need, but it is a beautiful location. It was also gifted to the nation in the 1920's and is free to visit. We felt rather lucky to have made it though, we discovered afterwards that the house closes in April for a year and some of the paintings will be touring the States... But then the Heath is always there, and with its stunning views over London and ability to lift you a finger's breadth above the pollution, it's perfect for a sunny day.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

A Fairground for Little Fingers

Today our "extended family" (my long suffering friend and her two fabulous kids) invited us to join them on a trip to Stockwood Park Discovery Centre near Luton. When I learn to drive (soon!) I owe them at least a year's worth of carting around.
Despite topping the charts in the Crap Towns of Britain Poll (II), Luton, it seems, harbours some little gems. The Discovery Centre is almost the opposite of Verulamium Museum in that it is multi-faceted, sprawling and surprising. It seems to be primarily designed with kids in mind and has opportunities for sensory engagement at every turn. As we had never visited before, every new area brought something unexpected. We moved from Life's Journey, through a cathedral to horse-drawn carriages (piled high to the ceiling), activity playgrounds, a beehouse, gardens (sensory, medicinal, Elizabethan, wartime... the list goes on), open spaces with large old trees, a hands-on museum of local ancient history and a collection of tractors! It is so seemingly random that it kept us adults, and the children, entertained all day. Culturebaby had so much to touch and feel that she kept fighting sleep until she passed out somewhere in the Cretaceous period.

 Some of Culturebaby's favourite things:
  1.  MOVEMENT: As always, she just loves the opportunity to be walked around in the Baby Bjorn, looking at new things, getting fresh air; arms and legs flapping with excitement;
  2. TOUCH: There was a huge range of exciting textures for us to touch - from fossils to garden ornaments, plants to horsehair, honeycomb to metal car parts;
  3. SMELL: Surprisingly there were lots of things to smell, including a medieval fair with its range of odours!
  4. SEE: Culturebaby can't move past an exciting video without being transfixed, and there were also bright exhibits and several murals. She also loves watching her older friends play and there was plenty of opportunity for that;
  5. HEAR: One of our favourite things was a sensory garden with a couple of noisy items to play with. Culturebaby particularly liked a large windchime that she could hit with a stick and make a range of notes. Although her rainmaker is one of her favourite toys, she did get a bit scared by a giant and very noisy wheel version! The bee building was also a welcome oasis of calm with classical music (and a commentary) and buttons to press to hear the sound of bees;
  6. PLAY: We managed a rendition of This is the Way the Farmer Rides in the back of a real farmyard cart. She also cooked up some imaginative milk with her buddies in the reconstructed retro caravan...
  7. And of course there is always that persistent and fascinating baby that lives in windows and shiny surfaces wherever we go... 

Some great things for Culturebaby's little friends:
  1. PLAY: There is a great adventure playground, lots of educational games and dressing up boxes everywhere;
  2. EXPLORE: There are wagons to board (including a large chariot that was used in the filming of Ben Hur and a car used in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), chairs that simulate the real movement of carts and cars, reconstructed houses, a sandpit to excavate and gardens to explore. There are also normally bees and chickens;
  3. LEARN: There are some great child-friendly and interactive museum exhibits and some discovery sections that not only contain archaeological finds, but show how they ended up under the ground. The biggest hit with the three year old was a video recreation of a prehistoric underwater scene, showing how the fossil of a Icthyosaurus (displayed below it) was created. She went on to look hard at the various fossils that had been swimming around in the video. It was a really effective learning tool. Another great activity, for both one and three year old, was a medieval clothing puzzle game on a large streetscene mural.

 One of the loveliest things about hanging out with my daughter and her friends, which I genuinely adore, is that rediscovery of the excitement of childhood. Although in places the museum was a bit rough and ready, with some broken exhibits, it was largely well thought out and fascinating for kids. There's also something different and new to do at every age so we'll be able to keep coming back. And it's free. Bargain.

Friday 9 March 2012

Rome at Home

Culturebaby is feeling a bit under the weather today, and so am I, so we've only just about managed a few renditions of nursery rhymes (to tunes I half remember). Aside from being fun for babies, the rhyme times at the local library and children's centres are rather invaluable revision sessions for mummies - though confusingly Humpty Dumpty has acquired a bungee rope and Jack and Jill appear to be no longer socially acceptable (I suppose their accident is rather macabre).

From http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/601990
On Monday Culturebaby took her three year old friend to Verulamium Museum in St Albans. Toddler's "friends" are quite a lovely concept really. They are forced friendships (mummy's friend's offspring), but despite this, the little troopers throw themselves into the fray wholeheartedly, and with cuddles. Best friends in 5 minutes: a model for us all.

Verulamium is the-warm-hot-chocolate-by-the-fire of museums. It feels like you could happily hang out there all day. It is cosy. Your kids are not only welcome, but the museum has a number of exhibits specifically designed for them. And it is actually a little gem, with quality items on display, several mosaics and a number of reconstructed rooms. Culturebaby is a little young for some of the activities on offer (she had a good look at the reconstruction video, felt a few artefacts (seemingly welcome) and then fell asleep), but for her friend, there were 'I spy' activity sheets to complete, Roman board games to play, arches to construct, and there is normally a dressing up box. It is fascinating to see a museum through the eyes of a child - you take the time to look at things... and different things than you normally would- and it was interesting to see what caught the eye of Culturebaby's friend. The x-ray archaeological item boards became a jigsaw, and the room of Roman burials became a family. This latter room, I have never noticed before, is laid out perfectly for a child to see.

It's the sort of museum you can pop into, or spend hours in, and best of all it is free for St Albans residents and members of the fabulous National Art Pass Scheme. Plus there is more to see. The Museum is situated in Verulamium Park, which contains the ruins of Roman Walls, a mosaic (housed in its own building) and a Roman theatre (for a multi-media tour see here). There are also ducks to feed, waffles to eat, a cathedral to explore and the supposed oldest pub in England.

Tuesday 6 March 2012

Kusama is brilliant for Babies

Today I took culturebaby to the Tate Modern for the second time in a week- her first art gallery visits. Each time was a fantastic experience. She quite clearly loved it. Her chatterings and excited squeals at the art led to a number of discussions with passers-by about it "never being too early to show them art" (their observations) and how happy she looked. I was wearing her in a sling, facing forwards, so it was at times hard to see her reaction, though her legs and arms were flapping in front of certain pieces! However, every now and then we came to a mirrored piece and it was wonderful to see her excited face looking back.

The Tate has an exhibition of work from Yayoi Kusama's 60 year career and includes a brilliant range of media. Given that it is very unlikely that culturebaby or her peers will notice the propensity of phallic references, I'd say this is one of the most baby-friendly exhibitions I have seen. There are videos, wonderful bright patterned paintings such as Kusama's works from the 1990s and the last decade, giant polka-dot balloons, large sculptures, a UV-lit room I'm Here, but Nothing consisting of  a darkened domestic interior covered in fluorescent glowing spots, and the best sensory room one could ever hope to show a baby - the Infinity Mirrored Room- Filled with the Brilliance of Life. Kusama is interested in the infinity of space, and this room is made with a zig-zagged path through mirrored walls with multi-coloured (and constantly changing) hanging strings of lights. The floor on either side of the path contains water, again providing a reflective surface. Culturebaby loved the whole experience and was very vocal about it! This excellent link from the Guardian shows some of the more exciting images, including the Infinity Mirrored Room.

We also popped into the Alighiero Boetti Game Plan exhibition. There were some engaging textures and sculptures for us to see, and a particularly colourful series of embroideries entitled Tutto (everything). Culturebaby had a good chat with some of these beautiful large canvasses! This interesting textiles blog shows some of these.

What has been really apparent from our visit is that culturebaby really wants to touch the works (clearly not allowed), and therefore the areas outside the exhibitions with large reproductions of images, and especially the giant colourful flower sculpture created by Kusama (that is situated outside on the balcony), was brilliant for this.


 All in all, current exhibitions come highly recommended. And there is always a wonderful view from the cafe (which incidentally seems to be the meeting place of various NCT-like groups), for any feeding breaks...

Monday 5 March 2012

Making a start...

I'm now in my 30s, so I can admit with no loss of face that my mother did a pretty good job of introducing me to the area that has consumed much of my adult life. I'm a self confessed heritage geek, I love museums and galleries, and can think of no nicer way to spend the weekend than pottering around a National Trust house. I really believe that it is never too early to introduce babies to the arts and culture and I've always wanted to share with my children the things that I loved so much growing up. Many photographs of my two or three year old self feature me sporting a home-made headress or clutching my favourite teddy bear with stately home (not mine!), dinosaur or sarcophagus in the background.

I'm currently on maternity leave with my first baby, a five month old beautiful little girl, hereafter known as culturebaby. Following a rather worrying episode at the weekend where I struggled to read something out loud, and repeated occasions where nouns are replaced with 'thingy', or worse, wild gesticulation, I thought that writing a blog may jump start my rather squishy mummy-brain into a semblance of order. This blog will hopefully also be a record for my little lady of some of the cultural exploration we did together in her first few years; what she seemed to really like, what she didn't, and it will hopefully prove to be an interesting record of what's out there that works well for kids.

Don't worry, it's not all we do. Some of our favourite things in the week are swimming, walking and hanging out with friends. It's just a snapshot of part of our journey...

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