We moved across the country two weeks after my second son was born. Well, we moved two hours up the M5 from Bristol to Shrewsbury. It might as well have been a different planet. My oldest son had only just turned two. I was at home with my children all day while my other half settled into a new job. I was tired, lonely and very homesick for the city I had lived in and loved for a decade.
It was our local museum and art gallery that helped me and my children to find a place in our new community. We were drawn in by the weekly parent and toddler group, “Mini Mammoths”. I tentatively attended the first session with my mother in law in tow. The plan was that she would look after the baby so I could grapple with the toddler and make a quick escape if need be. There was no need to escape. We’ve been back every week for the last three years. The once troublesome toddler is now at school, and the sleeping baby is a big three year old finding his own path through the museum.
Mini Mammoths sessions are designed and led by Fay and Cary, with help from volunteers and others in the museum team. Fay is the museum’s learning and communications manager. Cary is an early years specialist who runs a local nursery. They are professionals who understand and enjoy working with children. If anyone needs to run, or walk, or talk, they are free to do so. If they don’t want to participate, that is fine, their autonomy is respected.
Each session follows a familiar structure, opening with an opportunity for free play in the education room while carers arrive and settle. Fay and Cary seek out new families to introduce themselves. Regulars are greeted warmly. Once assembled, the Mini Mammoths march down to the museum for a themed session where interesting objects, stories and songs are shared. This is followed by a hunt around the museum, crafts or sensory activities, and (after all that hard work) a snack.
The theme is often seasonal. Every year when the swallows arrive in Shrewsbury a local expert (and parent) leads a session on their migration. My now five year old can distinguish a swallow from a swift as they fly above us, and swallows have become his favourite bird. My three year old understands what “nocturnal” means, and can tell you which local animals will be active at night. Natural history exhibits are woven into the stories that the children hear and the hunts that they go on around the museum.
This summer the museum invited Lovelyland (a local social enterprise who inform, educate and inspire community groups and schools about where food comes from) to install a community garden in the courtyard. The Mini Mammoths planted peas and beans, and my son and I picked a large marrow from the garden and took it home for our tea. A local ceramicist hosted workshops for all ages to creates tiles or bowls inspired by the garden.
It’s always a real treat when the group is given access to the latest special exhibition. Perhaps predictably, Lego: Brick History was a hit. My youngest was endlessly fascinated with the recreations of historical scenes and spent a long time spotting all the tiny details in a model of a medieval castle. The exhibition was hugely interactive, and we came back time and again with both children to enjoy the exhibits and play with the Lego. Other exhibitions, which may initially seem less child friendly, have been just as popular. The sensory exhibits in the Antarctica exhibition enabled children to really engage with the subject: sheltering in a real tent, trying on boots that were worn by a member of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition, and visiting an Antarctic research station using virtual reality.
The real key to why Mini Mammoths is so wonderful is the sense of ownership the children are given. My kids have grown up in a museum. They have been warmly welcomed every week by the staff and volunteers. They have had privileged access to exhibitions, and been encouraged to touch and engage with artefacts. When they ask questions, those questions are answered; when they suggest ideas, those ideas are greeted with respect and enthusiasm.
My sons have been given the gift of being able to confidently enjoy museums and art galleries wherever we go. As a family we have visited Eureka! in Halifax, Enginuity in Ironbridge and most recently we met Dippy the Diplodocus when he came to the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. We always come back to Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery though, it’s our museum.