Open all hours - Museums Association

Open all hours

This year's Museums and Galleries Month featured special events, late-night openings, torch-lit tours, live music and storytelling. As part of the celebrations, 50 museums and galleries also screened the blockbuster film Night at the Museum. Museums Journal sent writers to five venues to sample what was going on
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DESIGN MUSEUM, CENTRAL LONDON

My name is Niamh. I am seven years old. My brother, Finn, who is five years old, went with me to the Design Museum in London for a special workshop called My Sky Space. We had to draw and construct a model of something exciting that would improve the top of a tall building.

We were taken by our grandparents. Bumps used to do something in museums and Nen was a primary school teacher, but we didn't need them. Komal and her helpers were really kind. They supplied all sorts of special cards, sticks and fancy papers. They showed us how to use glue guns and they cut out shapes with sharp knives.

Finn noticed that there were only a few chimneys in London and so he designed a helicopter and reindeer-sleigh pad for Santa. I thought that it would be good to look at the effects of global warming so I designed a skating rink powered by solar panels, which I called Ice Tropical. It had a free shape so skaters didn't have to negotiate corners.

It was hard work but great fun. It's difficult to concentrate when you have lovely views of Tower Bridge and the boats on the Thames. But it was very worthwhile. Finn, who's a dinosaur-nut, said it was 'really funky actually - even better than the Natural History Museum', so that's very high praise.

Now we've been to one workshop we'd like to go back and try our hands at designing even more spectacular things.

Niamh and Finn Edwards are the grandchildren of Peter Lewis, a writer and former director of Beamish, the North of England Open-Air Museum

THE COLLECTION, LINCOLN

History came vividly to life at The Collection in Lincoln when staff dressed as characters from the city's rich and colourful past for the museum's MGM event.

Roman standard bearer Gaius Valerius (a name perhaps best pronounced in Russell Crowe's menacing and manly tones) and Thorfast the Viking blacksmith represented the first influx of 'outsiders' to settle in the county, centuries before the property press alighted on the shire's attractive market towns in search of reasonable house prices.

A medieval damsel looked in no distress at all behind the bookshop counter while Claudia Chrysis - well-to-do Roman wife and pillar of
the community - welcomed visitors at the information desk. She looked good for her age, too; in the exhibition hall next door, the resilient resident's actual tombstone inscription revealed that she was at least 85 when she died.

Helping the staff in entertaining and informing visitors were members of Lord Burgh's Retinue, a living history society based in Lincolnshire who travel the length and breadth of the country re-enacting 15th century life. With pipes and hurdy-gurdy armed and ready for action, they entertained young and old with medieval song and dance, while a War of the Roses veteran showed off his swordsmanship and a very pointy pair of armoured boots.

As if all that was not enough, there were free screenings of the Hollywood laugh fest that is Night at the Museum; an all-you-can-eat buffet serving up very traditional 21st century fare rather than bison and squirrel porridge; and a face-painting booth where several young men opted for a Braveheart look, celebrating either Mel Gibson's love for the English or Chelsea's FA Cup final victory earlier
that afternoon.

John Holt is a freelance journalist

HORNIMAN MUSEUM, SOUTH EAST LONDON

Walking around the darkened galleries of the Horniman by torchlight, I couldn't help but think of Howard Carter peering for the first time into Tutankhamun's tomb and the thrill he must have felt as he caught glimpses of those magnificent treasures in the shadows.

The diminutive explorers at the museum were no less enthralled. Some could hardly contain their excitement as they peered into showcases, torches gripped tightly in one hand, pencils and treasure trails in the other. Let loose first in the natural history gallery and later in the African Worlds gallery, they squealed with delight as they caught sight of a stuffed owl here, a pickled cat there, a host of skeletons and, of course, the museum's all-important Egyptian mummy.

Before long, Mr Horniman appeared in his stovepipe hat and long black coat to gather the kids around for an old-fashioned folktale punctuated with plenty of heart-thumping details and curious props. This was the perfect chance for the adults to wander through the exhibits without tripping over little ones. Vodou altars and African initiation masks take on a whole new appearance in the gloom. No wonder the event was fully booked, with a long list of families pleading to be allowed in.

Staff kept a distant yet watchful eye on proceedings to maintain a level of safety while intrepid armchair travellers of all ages were encouraged to look closely at the displays to discover things they hadn't noticed before. Needless to say, there were plenty of ghoulish moanings and groanings to add to the spooky atmosphere. If a night at the Horniman doesn't cure your fear of darkness nothing will.

Maria Blyzinsky is the senior exhibitions manager at the National Maritime Museum, London

GALLERIES OF JUSTICE, NOTTINGHAM

'You need money to be here!' Mrs Barnaby gruffly told her 'prisoners' during their tour of the Galleries of Justice. Cash to bribe the warder might have been essential in Georgian jails, but it was not necessary during this special evening event. Rather than paying the usual £7.95 admission price to the museum I was able to enjoy Nottingham's self-styled 'premier attraction' for free thanks to MGM.

Twenty-two adults and two very young children took part. The stony-faced Mrs Barnaby met us at the steps. She turned out to be a first-rate costumed interpreter. Life in Prison: Losing Your Identity lived up to its name. The latter was literally true as we were given our convict numbers after role-playing the infamous trial of George Beck (executed on the steps outside for his part in the 1831 Reform Bill riots).

'It's educational, isn't it?' I overheard a fellow inmate say as we were 'sent down' from the magnificent court to explore the cells below. Mrs Barnaby soon made sure we knew the difference between a pillory and the stocks. We also learned a lot from what was clearly a mostly invited audience, which included a probation officer who had worked at the site for 30 years.

This event was an important reminder that the Galleries of Justice is today a first-rate heritage attraction. The front-of-house team were as friendly as the guide was tyrannical.

Criticism is reserved for publicity. Some visitors clearly didn't know what to expect: Mrs Barnaby traumatised the five year old, and the never-ending steps agonised the pensioners ('this is crippling me - I've had both hips replaced!').

A simultaneous screening of Night at the Museum in the Civil Court was poorly attended. When improving its PR the Galleries of Justice ought to start with its website, which hasn't been updated in months.

Stuart Burch (convict number B3-567) is a lecturer in heritage studies at Nottingham Trent University

WAKEFIELD ART GALLERY

Wakefield, Saturday night: the pubs and clubs were bulging at the seams, and the muffin tops and beer bellies were out and proud. But this wasn't the only party in town. Down the high street, Wakefield Art Gallery, normally tucked up and asleep at this hour, was crowded with locals. They were there to enjoy its first Night Lights, a MGM evening of music, shadow puppet theatre, happenings and, 'a chance to see sculptures as you've never seen them before'.

I arrived at 7.30pm to find the event in full swing. Excited parents were as captivated as their little ones by the shadow puppet show. Little Ruby had drawn round Dad's hands to create her own shadow puppet bird, while Dad - an art teacher at the local school - was busy with scissors cutting his own fantastic creature.

Next door, the gallery lights were out and Barbara Hepworth's sculptures plunged into darkness. We were issued with colour torches and invited to explore. The white marble took on a ghoulish appearance under my green torch, while someone else's pink torch emphasised the texture of the large bronze Two Piece Reclining Figure. It might not have been Pink Floyd at the Roundhouse but it was still fun.

Drinks in hand, the older crowd gravitated to the garden, lit with tiny white fairy lights, to find a piece called Day. Made from painted steel to reflect changes in light and shadow, it was bathed in colourful swirling patterns from a gobo. For baby boomers, this was more like it.

The event seemed to have been a hit with first timers as well as gallery regulars. I met a mum who had popped along with her teenage daughter. They just wanted to find out what was going on. Instead of Saturday night flop, it was definitely Saturday night live in Wakefield. Same time, same place, next year? I hope so.

Caroline Worthington is the curator of art at York Museums Trust

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