Six museums around the country where young visitors are immersed in history, culture – and fun

Some adults may still be haunted by the memory of being dragged round a dusty old museum on a rainy Saturday to ‘learn something’. Fortunately, museums and galleries have raised their game over recent decades, with dedicated resources to engage the next generation through entertainment as well as learning. Even so, young minds don’t always enjoy the biggest spaces or the most ancient treasures. One solution is to find smaller, quirkier and more focused places. Here are six museum and gallery spaces around the country where children and teens are top priority.
The Story Museum in Oxford brings tall tales, classic stories and epic adventures to life through readings, performances and fun

The Story Museum, Oxford

This treasure in the city of dreaming spires celebrates the world of stories – collecting, sharing and performing. Of course, Oxford has produced more than its fair share of authors, with C.S. Lewis, Philip Pullman and Tolkien among the children’s greats. The museum even celebrates one local hero, Lewis Carroll, with Alice’s Day each July. Performances, workshops and skills building events are a mainstay, and with unusual initiatives such as its ‘1001 Stories’ initiative to collect tales from different times and places and objects related to them. Children love The Whispering Wood, where every tree has a story to tell, and the Small Worlds area immerses the youngest visitors in picture books and nursery rhymes. City of Stories explores the history of Oxford through myths, legends and children’s classics, while stories are brought to life The Woodshed performance area.

Museum Of Making
Derby’s Museum of Making gives children hands-on engineering, creative and maker-doer opportunities

Museum of Making, Derby

Located in the old Silk Mill close to the cathedral, this brilliantly reimagined museum is all about the region’s makers, inventors and creators. With manufacturing heritage ranging from railways and Rolls-Royce to textiles, STEAM approaches are celebrated. There’s a big programme of child-friendly activities, including in The Workshop and Makers’ Courtyard. The Throwing Room tells the story of how silk thread was transformed into a luxury textile, while The Gateway introduces the cotton industry that followed in Derwent Valley. Highlights include the engines – including a tiny miniature engine exhibited at the 1936 Chicago World’s Fair powered by a human hair and a Rolls-Royce Trent 1000, best viewed from the Flight Deck. Children will also love Assemblage, set out like a museum store but with many objects to handle, and the model railway rides in Railways Revealed.

The Lightbox, Credit Peter Cook
The Lightbox in Woking offers exceptional modern art, local history and lots of creative making and curating activities for young people

The Lightbox, Woking

This local museum offers exceptional collections of modern British art (including works by Lynn Chadwick, Elisabeth Frink, Barbara Hepworth and Eduardo Paolozzi) alongside more local exhibits telling the story of the Surrey town in a permanent exhibition. There’s a full schedule of ‘maker doer’ activities for young visitors, with Young Creative workshops for 11+ children and drop-in creative events during school holidays. Young people are encouraged to get involved and influence the direction of The Lightbox via its Young Volunteers, Youth Collective and Kids in Museums initiatives. Children love the cool building (same architects as the London Eye and treetop walkway at Kew), the Smartify audio guide available on an app and the art-focused Make and Play area.

6 of the best child-friendly museums
Eureka! (also pictured top) lets children play and learn about life, the universe and everything

Eureka! The National Children’s Museum, Halifax

Billed as ‘not like other museums’, Eureka! is bright, colourful and with a dash of theme-park thinking – so great fun for its 0 to 11 target age group. It’s divided into six zones, and with ‘Enablers’ throughout to bring exhibits to life. In All About Me children can step inside the human body, including looking up a giant nose, finding out about the workings of our eyes and brains and role play in a health centre. Living & Working together lets them explore, shop and bank in a child-sized town. Under 5s have their own zones – including Creativity Space, Sound Garden and Desert Zone – while older children will enjoy the temporary exhibitions in Spark Gallery. Activities such as theatre performances take place in school holidays. A sister museum Eureka! Science + Discovery opened recently in Wallasey, Wirral aimed at the 7-14 age group.

It’s all aboard at the National Maritime Museum’s Cornish sister, located on the waterside at Falmouth

National Maritime Museum Cornwall, Falmouth

This smaller branch of the much-loved institution in Greenwich is housed in a landmark building at Discovery Quay and offers 15 galleries exploring the influence of the sea. It has lots of sailing vessels – from the flotilla hanging over your head in the Main Hall from the National Small Boat Collection to the craft out on the water at The Pontoon. There’s also a great boating lake inside the museum and an RNLI Rescue Zone. There’s local and Cornish maritime and fishing history to explore – including a reconstruction of a pilchard cellar – plus a brilliant Tidal Zone that takes children below the harbour to view marine life and learn all about waves and ocean. Temporary exhibitions are definitely child friendly – Pirates and Tattoo (tattoo art) are currently showing – and there’s a fun Skull Island Play Zone. The Lookout, with panoramic views over Falmouth, is unmissable.

Scapa Museum
Scapa Flow Museum on Hoy tells fascinating stories of wartime and the island’s history – and was designed by and for children

Scapa Flow Museum, Hoy

This is one of the most unusual museums in the UK, and definitely one for the young set. Local primary school children even helped design the layout of spaces through the National Galleries Scotland Junior Curators programme. The museum, which made the shortlist for the 2023 Art Fund Museum of the Year, has been imaginatively redesigned over several years to serve the local community (some 400) and the many thousands of visitors who want to find out more about the distinguished wartime role of this small island. Sited at the former Royal Lyness Royal Naval Base, it houses a major collection of First and Second World War artefacts and the refurbishment tells a story of local, national and international significance. The amazing 1937 pumphouse that used steam to deliver fuel to the fleet is refurbished – a unique survivor – while the new extension tells immersive battle and wartime stories through disparate artefacts, but also VR and AV displays. Children will also love the digital 3D exhibit that lets them explore Scapa Flow’s wreck sites.

Further reading: Culture online – fun for young museum explorers