Play and display

England boasts an unusual array of fine museums, featuring monsters, mines, milliners and much more. Alison Rice chooses her favourites
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The Independent Travel

From hats and ships, lead mines and lawnmowers to dinosaurs and cow dung - you'll find everything but whispering and dust in English museums today. Many are leading the way in excellent entertainment for family days out.

From hats and ships, lead mines and lawnmowers to dinosaurs and cow dung - you'll find everything but whispering and dust in English museums today. Many are leading the way in excellent entertainment for family days out.

A cow pat is part of an inspiring exhibit at the Thackray Museum in Leeds, where you can learn about the fundamentals of medicine and public health. Educational? Yes. Entertaining? Very. Follow the progress of a pea in the digestive system, learn about operations and discover just how gruesome life was for the poor in Victorian Leeds.

In Liverpool all national museums are free, and they provide more than enough hands-on fascination to keep the family occupied for a good day out. At the HM Customs & Excise Museum - part of the Merseyside Maritime Museum - you can follow the history of smuggling, from Long John Silver to the tricks today's air travellers pull to avoid paying duty.

The Natural History Museum, one of the very best of London's free and family-friendly museums, is an important scientific centre researching the diversity of nature, housed in a Victorian building, with state-of-the-art Earth Galleries that are not only beautiful to look at but are crammed with enriching information. Be warned, this museum is addictive. Pop in to show a 10-year-old the 26-metre dinosaur skeleton and you could end up spending the day studying fossils, experiencing an earthquake and brushing up on the bugs most likely lurking in your kitchen. Book in advance for a free guided tour behind the scenes of the new Darwin Centre, and you'll get to see specimens collected by Charles Darwin and Captain Cook.

With an hour to spend in the city of London, the free Bank of England Museum will enlighten you about the bank's history as well as show you an unrivalled collection of bank notes and forgeries. Unfortunately, it is closed at weekends.

If you doubt the attraction of learning about the bad old days of lead mining, visit Killhope, the North of England Lead Mining Museum in County Durham. Here a disused mine has been converted into an award-winning interactive mining experience. There's a hard-hatted tour down the mine plus a chance for children to dress as Victorian child labourers and splash around as "washerboys". Killhope delivers "history you can touch".

In Newcastle, the free Discovery Museum is great at bringing local history alive. There's also the finest collection of scientific and technical materials outside London including Turbinia, the first ship to be powered by steam turbines and, in 1894, the fastest ship in the world. And under-sevens get their own hands-on water activity area called Play Tyne.

Hat Works in Stockport is "brimming" with activity. Learn about the hatting industry and try on different headgear and have a go at making felt.

In Exeter, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum does a grand job of keeping families entertained for free with its 16 eclectic galleries covering archaeology to zoology, Africa to Exeter.

At Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum you can drool for free at the exquisite national collection of the arts and crafts movement - the creative genre that transformed design around the beginning of last century and still has a huge relevance today.

In Manchester and London you will be moved and inspired by the Imperial War Museums. Both museums offer thought-provoking, innovative and challenging displays leaving you determined to prevent future conflicts as well as educated about what past generations have had to endure. Manchester's Imperial War Museum North is also an architecturally stunning modern building, designed by Daniel Libeskind.

In Hartlepool, you can tour the decks of HMS Trincomalee, Britain's oldest warship afloat. Built in 1817, it's been fully restored and is moored at Hartlepool's Historic Quay. The enthusiasm of the volunteers who guide visitors helped this classic frigate reach the finals of the prestigious Excellence in England awards along with the Thackray Museum, Imperial War Museum North and the Natural History Museum. The winners are announced on 22 April.

In Southport, £1 buys you a tour of the British Lawnmower Museum. The only museum claiming to be "mower interesting" includes, I kid you not, a display of grass-cutting devices of the rich and famous.

Most museums organise special events for children at weekends and during school holidays. If you find yourself stuck for choice, check out www.24hourmuseum.org.uk for even more ideas. May is Museums and Galleries Month, so expect extra events around the country on this year's theme of "travelling and the art of travel".

Museums are now better looked after and better displayed than ever. You won't have to travel far to find something engaging and fun: Loyd Grossman, chair of the Campaign for Museums, maintains that just around the corner from where you live there is most likely a local museum or gallery looking after your heritage, putting on special events for schools and the local community, and working with artists and craftspeople to create the heritage of tomorrow.

MUSEUM CONTACT INFORMATION

Thackray Museum, Leeds 0113 244 4343; www.thackraymuseum.org; adults £4.90, children 5-16 £3.50, family ticket £16

National Museums of Liverpool www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk; admission free

Natural History Museum, London 020-7942 5011; www.nhm.ac.uk; admission free

Killhope: The North of England Lead Mining Museum, County Durham 01388 537 505; www.durham.gov.uk/killhope; adults (including mine visit) £6, children £3, family ticket £17, concs £5.50

Discovery Museum, Blandford Square, Newcastle 0191 232 6789; www.twmuseums.org.uk; admission free

Hatworks, Wellington Mill, Stockport 0161 355 7770; www.hatworks.org.uk; adults £3.95, children £2.50, family ticket £11

Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter 01392 665 858; www.exeter.gov.uk; admission free

Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum 01242 237 431; www.cheltenham.artgallery.museum; admission free

Imperial War Museum North, Manchester 0161 836 4000; www.iwm.org.uk; admission free

Imperial War Museum, London 020-7416 5320; www.iwm.org.uk; admission free

HMS Trincomalee, Jackson Dock, Hartlepool 01429 223 193; www.hms-trincomalee.co.uk; adults £4.25, children 5-17 £3.25, family ticket £11.75 (from 1 April)

Bank of England Museum, London 020-7601 5491; www.bankofengland.co.uk/museum; admission free

British Lawnmower Museum, Southport 01704 501 336; www.lawnmowerworld.co.uk; adults £1 children 50p

For information on Museum and Galleries Month this May, see www.may2004.org.uk. For 'City Culture', a free 80-page guide to England's cities, call 0845 458 0072, or see www.visitengland.com/cities

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