Image courtesy of Natalie Long
Image courtesy of Natalie Long
Given the huge amount of history contained within this European city, it’s really no surprise that there is an incredible number of museums to visit in Berlin and somewhat understandably, by the end of our penultimate day, both children were beginning to grumble about feeling a little “museum-ed” out. We were lucky to enjoy some glorious sunshine whilst we were there, so we took every opportunity available to venture out on foot as well as making using of the “hop-on, hop-off” bus and highly efficient public transit system. I think (hope) we managed a good balance between those museums with exhibits about Nazi Germany and those about the Cold War era and it was great to hear G being able to explain in more detail some of the topics she has learned about at school. Here’s a list of some of our city adventures in Berlin this May:
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe: A strangely effective and emotive memorial built within 5 minutes walk of the Brandenburg Gate. These 2,711 concrete slabs vary in size and shape and are constructed on undulating ground, which once formed part of the “death strip” that split the city into East and West by the Berlin Wall. There is no attributed significance to the number or design of this memorial, but instead it intends to invoke a sense of unease as you wander through the rows. Beneath the memorial, there is an information centre, which contains details and memories of some of the Jewish families affected by the horrors of the Holocaust from 1933 on. Unfortunately, the centre was closed on the day we visited and we didn’t have time to go back, but it is somewhere I’d be keen to revisit if we had the chance.
DDR Museum: Located on the banks of the River Spree, the DDR museum details life in East Germany under Socialist rule and is a fantastic interactive experience, which M really enjoyed. It looks at all aspects of everyday life from school and work to holidays, transport, national service and beyond. M was particularly taken by the opportunity to try his hand at driving the Trabant P601 simulation, whilst G spent a long time at the interactive desk which gave in-depth information about different parts of the political history of Berlin. My Grandad came from Czechoslovakia to the UK as part of the Allied forces during the war years and I found that the exhibits invoked many memories of how my grandparents lived, albeit in Northamptonshire, as well as of my first trip to Czechoslovakia in 1988 to visit our family who still live there. A great museum which kept us busy for between 2 and 3 hours.
Palace of Tears: This tiny museum is one we almost missed, but is definitely worth dedicating at least an hour to wander through it. It is based in the former border crossing point at the Berlin Friedrichstraße station, which was only used for those leaving East Berlin for West Berlin. It covers the timeline from the building of the Berlin Wall to its collapse, looking at the stories relating to the checkpoint as well as the process to achieve the reunification of the country. M and I spent some time watching the video of the fall of the Berlin Wall and talking about the fact that this event was living history for me – something that I remember happening during my childhood when I was about his age.
Jewish Museum: This was one of the museums recommended to us by G’s history teacher, but unfortunately the permanent exhibition is currently closed as it is being redeveloped. However, we spent the morning seeing what was open to the public and it was definitely time well-spent. Split over a couple of floors, we first visited the Holocaust exhibit, which displayed mementos, letters and photos from many Jewish families and relayed some of their history as well as detailing whether they died in a concentration camp or were fortunate enough to survive that terror. From there, we ventured outside through a memorial garden, before heading back in to the “A is for Jewish” interactive exhibit, which talks about the many varying aspects of contemporary Jewish life in Germany. Finally, we walked through the “Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves)” art installation, where you quite literally walk on 10,000 sheet steel faces of varying sizes symbolising all innocent victims of war and violence.
Mauer Museum at Checkpoint Charlie: This was one of the surprise hits of our holiday and one that we wouldn’t have visited if it hadn’t been for my insistence that I wanted to go to see Checkpoint Charlie on foot and our need for something to occupy our unplanned afternoon. Filled with an absolutely incredible amount of exhibits, it started with a look at the story of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish businessman who is thought to have saved thousands of Jews from Nazi-occupied Hungary during the Holocaust before he disappeared in 1945 and was presumed to have died whilst imprisoned by the KGB, although there have been very many question marks surrounding the circumstances, and timing, of his death. Upstairs the exhibit moved through very many escape stories from East Germany, which absolutely fascinated M, not least of which was the armoured escape vehicle on display. There is also a huge area dedicated to human rights and worldwide civil unrest, including Ukraine and North Korea. An absolutely fascinating museum and one that you could easily spend a day, or more, exploring.
German Spy Museum: The unquestionable highlight of all the museums we visited in Berlin and it got a definite thumbs up from both children. Starting with a timeline of the development of espionage worldwide through the ages, this museum blends its interactive experience with a particular focus of espionage during the Cold War era. The main exhibit was divided between East and West Berlin and how spies played a part on both sides for many years. The laser maze gives visitors the opportunity to see if they can successfully work their way through the lasers to reach the abort button before enemy missiles are launched. Sad to say, neither G or M managed it, triggering the alarms as they made their way through it, although they both had great fun trying. There was also a section about fictional spies, most notably 007 himself, James Bond with some memorabilia and clips from several of the films. We hadn’t left ourselves enough time to see everything this museum had to offer as we had to head back to the airport for our flight home, so it’s definitely one to revisit in the future.
In planning our Easter adventure around Scotland, we quickly realised that our desire to visit all the places we were hoping to go would create what can only be described as a whistle-stop tour of the country. We could easily have chosen a half-dozen more places that one of the other of us, or perhaps even both, wanted to see and I can already foresee more visits North being squeezed into our future travel plans. For each location we settled on, we decided to stay just 2 night only, giving us one full day to explore where we were and so asked G and M to do a little research about different museums they wanted to visit or landmarks they’d like to see. There were no promises that we’d manage to do any or all of these, but I was keen for them to be as excited about our travels as we were.
The first leg of our journey took us to Liverpool, famously home to The Beatles as well as Premier League football clubs, the Grand National and the White Star Shipping Line, owners of the ill-fated Titanic. Mike and I spent a long weekend in the city for our 15th wedding anniversary a couple of years ago and so had already determined that we wanted to take the children to “The Beatles Story” exhibition at Albert Dock. A lengthy Google search by G and M led to the discovery of “Western Approaches”, a museum delving into Liverpool’s role during WW2. As both children have been studying aspects of the First and Second World Wars at school, they quickly decided that this was somewhere they absolutely wanted to go and Mike and I were more than happy to agree.
After a quick breakfast in our hotel room, something we usually choose to do as it ensures we have safe cereal and milk for both children whilst we’re away from home, we headed off on foot to our first destination, “The Beatles Story” exhibition. This marvellous museum is based at the iconic Albert Dock and charts the history of The Beatles, starting with childhood stories and finishing with all that the individual members of the band have gone on in their solo careers. As always, we all opted for the audio guides, something that M loves to do as he listens to the stories unfold as he traipses round the exhibits and touring at our own paces, moved from room to room. I’ll be honest and say that M didn’t manage to stay engaged for the entire exhibit, but he did reasonably well and by the time he’d had enough, I was ready to remove my headphones and wander the remaining spaces with him. Both children enjoyed the museum, especially the areas displaying memorabilia and costumes and picked up some interesting facts about one of our favourite bands. They also loved walking around Albert Dock and exploring the multitude of small shops that are there.
From Albert Dock, we walked back to Liverpool One, where we found a fantastic allergy-friendly diner for lunch. I will leave reviewing our dining choices until my next blog, but I will tease you with the tidbit that this lunch-time destination was easily one of the best we went to and M was desperate to go back again if only time had allowed. After a late lunch, it was time to go on to the children’s choice of the Western Approaches War museum. Hidden in a fairly unprepossessing building, I cannot begin to tell you just how fantastic this small museum turned out to be. Based in the wartime bunker beneath Derby House, Western Approaches takes you on a journey explaining just how the Battle of the Atlantic was won by the Allied Forces. The staff were incredibly knowledgable and helpful and took a keen interest in explaining what we were going to see to both children before we entered. G had just been learning about the Battle of the Atlantic at school and so it seemed a particularly apt museum choice, especially when she was told that young women, not much older than her, would have been working down there during the war years.
What particularly appealed to M whilst we were here was the Treasure Hunt that saw him toting a gas mask case filled with instructions, code-breaking equipment, notepads and a mini UV light around with him. Some of the clues were easier to crack than others and both children had a great time trying to find where they were hidden and working out where they needed to look next. Most of the exhibits were hands on, which is great for children of all ages and both M and G quickly spotted the link to Bletchley Park and the code-breaking work that went on there during WW2. My favourite bit came right at the end of our visit, when we reached the street scene set up, including unexploded bomb and the tiny canteen asking for 2d for a cup of tea or coffee. I happily paid my 2p over, plus a little bit more to support their cause, and sat down to enjoy it whilst we all played one of the period board games that was available. It was a fantastic way to spend a couple of hours on a fairly grey and miserable afternoon and I would highly recommend this museum to anyone who’s looking for something to do in Liverpool.
The only disappointment with our visit was that we hadn’t realised that the Terracotta Warriors are currently on display at the World Museum, something that Mike and I would both love to take the children to see. We were lucky enough to see them in-situ in Xian when we visited China back in 2001 and want to take advantage of this opportunity to share this fascinating exhibit with G and M. Our plan is to book tickets for a visit there over the summer and have another long weekend in Liverpool, perhaps experiencing some of the other things we didn’t manage to do on this trip.
It might have been a damp, chilly October morning when we left home, but we didn’t let the weather deter us from completing our “top-secret” mission for the end of half-term – a visit to Station X, otherwise known as Bletchley Park. The purpose of our weekend away was actually to visit one of my Godmothers in nearby Milton Keynes, but the opportunity to take the children to see the home of unparalleled code-breaking during WWII was too good to miss. It was something of a last-minute plan, but I was confident that M would be fascinated by the history of code-breakers and spies that is so intricately woven into this beautiful Manor House and, what’s more, it fitted wonderfully well with some of the English home-work G had been set over half-term.
From the moment we drove in through the front gates, the children’s interest was piqued as we were questioned at the gate as to the reason for our visit and directed to the nearby car park. Members of staff were on hand to make sure we headed to the entrance and didn’t wander into any areas that are still in use today and not accessible to the general public. We started by picking up our multimedia tour packs, before heading into the grounds of Bletchley Park itself. M was keen to follow the guide exactly and so we started by the lake whilst listening to an introduction to all there was to see there, which believe me, is a lot. Once we had circumnavigated the lake, we were then taken around the rest of the site: starting at the Manor House, around to the garages and cottages, via the memorial to the Polish men and women involved in code-breaking during WWII and on to the restored Huts; all before ending up at the Block B Museum.
The Multimedia guide was absolutely brilliant and I’m really glad we stopped to pick them up despite G’s initial reluctance. Mike, M and I all chose the adult version, whilst G opted for the family friendly one. The map showed the key places for starting the audio recordings and you could then choose how many additional subject areas you wanted to listen to on a variety of different topics. The screens were all interactive and M had great fun “wiping off” the current images to reveal how each location would have looked during the 1940s. G had the added bonus of interactive puzzles to complete and loved working out how to break each code. The guides were included in the price of the entrance ticket and whilst they weren’t integral to our visit, they certainly revealed more of the story than was on display,
I would be hard-pressed to state which was my favourite part or indeed choose which I think the children enjoyed the most. There was just so much to see, so much to read and almost too much to absorb. From the history of Bletchley Park which led to its use during WWII, to the interactive displays of the Bombe machines in Hut 11, the Enigma machines on display in Block B and the children’s corner with puzzles and dressing up supplies, as well as an extensive area showing some of the props and costumes used to film last year’s blockbuster, “The Imitation Game“, there really was something for everyone. Sadly our few hours there simply weren’t long enough and we didn’t manage to explore either the National Radio Centre or the National Museum of Computing and its rebuild of Colossus, both located at the same site. No need to worry however, as it simply means that we will have to try to squeeze a revisit in and, as our entrance tickets give us admission for a full year, I’m sure we’ll manage it one way or another
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