Jo Fletcher-Cross finds the best ways to keep young visitors to the City of Dreaming Spires entertained
The Story Museum
The Story Museum is set over several floors of a rambling former telephone exchange in central Oxford. Entering via a charming courtyard, exploring the building pays handsome dividends for small book lovers. The changing room offers a dazzling array of dressing-up clothes, and once little ones are decked out in their finery, they can head up the red carpet to be announced by the marvelous Talking Throne. The Film Den shows film and television adaptations of favourite stories. Up on the top floor, head for Time for Bed, where children put on dressing gowns, choose a cuddly toy, brush their teeth with giant toothbrushes and head into a starlit world of stories, complete with giant bed where guest performers read bedtime stories. It’s even possible to step through a wardrobe into a snow-filled Narnia. The latest exhibition, Animal: A Safari Through Stories, explores how and why animals are used in children’s stories and features 12 new immersive spaces, as well as specially commissioned interviews with Michael Morpurgo, Philip Pullman, Piers Torday and Katherine Rundell. storymuseum.org
The Ashmolean Museum
The world’s first university museum, founded in 1683, might not seem like the most obvious of places to take a child; having visited in child-free days I did wonder if it might be a bit dry for my five-year-old. Pick up one of the well-thought-out museum trails, however, and not only will smaller visitors have a fantastic time, but mum and dad might get a chance to have a proper look at some of the treasures on display as the kids search for the items on the page. On the weekend we visited, friendly volunteers provided us with pencils, magnifying glasses and cheerful encouragement and off we went to find the top 10 objects in the museum – other trails are available, focusing on different topics such as Ancient Egypt or dogs. They’re all downloadable from the website too. ashmolean.org
Oxford University Museum of Natural History
In a bright and rather beautiful space, this is a museum to delight younger visitors. It’s even perfect for babies, with its wide aisles built to accommodate Victorian ladies’ crinolines most accommodating for pushchairs. Pick up a trail to explore or just wander round, marveling at the dodo and other stuffed animals and skeletons. Far from being told to keep away from exhibits, there are plenty of touchable specimens here, including a real dinosaur egg. This couldn’t be a more family-friendly museum and is sure to spark the imagination. oum.ox.ac.uk
Pitt Rivers Museum
Step inside the Pitt Rivers to enter an utterly eccentric world. The museum displays archaeological and ethnographic objects from around the world, which makes it sound like it might be rather dull, but nothing could be further from the truth. With over half-a-million objects in the collection —rather a lot of which are on display — it’s a cornucopia of extraordinary things, from Japanese Noh masks and Hawaiian feather cloaks to magical objects, including amulets and charms, and musical instruments. Everything is arranged by type, so a case of jewellery, for instance, will have different kinds from all over the world at different times, and lots of the items have handwritten notes about them penned by the very first curator of the museum. Housed in the same building as the Museum of Natural History, it’s an extraordinary place to wander around.
For panoramic views over the city, climb up the Saxon St George’s Tower, one of the oldest buildings in Oxford. Then head down, down, down, following a costumed character guide, into the 900-year-old crypt, all that’s left of St George’s Chapel, where Oxford’s long association with education began, and where Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote the History of the Kings of Britain. If it’s not quite gloomy enough down there, then the 18th-century Debtors Tower and Prison D-Wing should provide some food for thought. The tour also takes visitors to the mound of the 11th-century motte-and-bailey castle, before leaving them to explore the castle prison and wider site. Excellent for older children, this will bring history vividly to life.