England: Day 11

Wednesday is Free Museum Day for our family! After Liam and Abigail had both asked if we could take today off, we scrapped our original plan to head for Leeds Castle, and decided instead to let the kids sleep in until they woke of their own accord. We then packed a lunch and jumped on the Underground once more, alighting at the South Kensington station, where a long subway led us underground nearly to the door of the Science Museum. (Confusing vocabulary note: What we Americans would call the subway is here the “Tube” or “Underground”. What Englanders call a “Subway” is an underground pedestrian walkway — a concept for which I don’t think we have a dedicated word in American english.)

The Science Museum was fabulous. Like the British Museum, admission is free, and it’s too big to take in its entirety in one visit. The entry hall is dominated by an enormous, three-story tall brushed metal ring, the inner circumference of which is lined with white LEDs used to display a varied series of patterns and messages, some of which are entered by museum visitors at one of the exhibits on the 2nd floor. (Another confusing vocabulary note: the floor where one enters is here called the ground floor. Go up a flight of stairs, and you’ll find yourself on the first floor — what we Americans would call the second.) The ring, sadly, was too huge to be able to capture in a photo, but really appealed to the part of my brain that likes shiny objects and Blue Man Group.

Our favorite bit as a family was the Energy exhibit, which had a variety of interactive displays designed and executed by a number of different artists. Though the educational value of some of them was a bit suspect, they were all quite engaging. It was especially nice to see exhibits designed by artists, who are often a bit more sensitive to the nuances of human communication than are scientists. The kids were also intrigued by the Foucault Pendulum, which the museum staff sets going in the morning and twists around throughout the day as the earth rotates beneath it. (They were, however, a bit disappointed they couldn’t play with it themselves.) I was fascinated to see that the museum had also built several Difference Engines — the mechanical computers that Charles Babbage had designed back in the 19th Century, but had never mustered the financial resources to fabricate during his lifetime.

We then popped over for a too-brief visit to the Museum of Natural History, another vast and beautiful facility. A giant metal sculpture of the earth, pierced by an ascending escalator, loomed over the entry hall here. We walked through a dramatic exhibition of volcanism and earthquakes, including a simulation of what a quake would be like. Since everybody’s energy level was flagging a bit by this point, we decided to track down some dinosaurs and then call it a day. After wending our way through one of the most complete bird exhibits I’ve laid eyes on, we finally found our dinosaurs, visiting with them for a few minutes before heading back to the Underground for our trip home. (We had been planning to wrap up the day with an outdoor dramatic production of Treasure Island, but true to London’s stereotype, the weather was rainy and a bit too cold to enjoy such an event. How odd to be enjoying 52° weather in July!)

The more I see of it, the more London seems an inexhaustible trove. One would need to spend a week in any one of a dozen museums to really take it in. While the theater that gets top billing may not be particularly innovative, there’s a ton of other stage productions that don’t get advertised in the Tube. Concerts, opera, pantomimes, and a delightful array of street entertainers flesh out the arts scene nicely, and the beautiful parks are without compare. Quite a city, indeed.