New Switch House turns on a more family-friendly Tate

It’s been 12 long years since Tate Modern trustees agreed a new extension to the building, following unprecedented visitor numbers since its opening in 2000. Finally, new Tate Modern complete with its magnificent Switch House extension (designed by Herzog & de Meuron), opens to the public on Friday, yet Arts Aloud was lucky enough to get a cheeky sneak preview for you yesterday.

“But we all loved old Tate Modern!” I hear you say. Very true. So what should we expect from new Tate Modern? Well it’s even more family friendly for a start – music to my ears. Here’s how:

Even more space 

The new Switch House extension has increased the size of Tate Modern by 60%. More space means less stress for visiting parents, (big tick), but the increased space has also transformed the gallery into a variety of exciting new spaces, all designed to bring about more experiential and performance art (which we know are a firm favourite with fidgety younger visitors).

The Wow factor

Right at the top of the new 10-storey Switch House is a free viewing platform with 360 degree views across London, offering uninterrupted views of The Shard, St Paul’s Cathedral, The Walkie-Talkie building, a huge stretch of The Thames. You name it, it’s in this picture-postcard. A brilliant first lesson in London’s fabulous skyline for budding architects.

The Turbine Hall takes centre-stage

Aside from being the space where those visiting with children can take a breather, the Turbine Hall has always been the main event space. Expect to find even more unusual events and encounters here, such as the choral celebration of Tate Modern by 500 people from over 20 choirs this weekend. The addition of the neighbouring ‘Tanks’ at the base of the Switch House makes for a subterranean wonderland dedicated to live art, installation and film.

Galleries, collections and artist rooms

As well as the usual free collections which have been re-hung across the two sites, there are galleries and artist rooms to die for! Galleries with giant spiders (Level 4 – Louise Bourgeois), galleries with beaches and live parrots (Level 3 – Hélio Oiticica), galleries with suspended walk-through pavilions (Level 2 – Cristina Iglesias) and even galleries with real beds! (Level 2 – Ricardo Basbaum). There is also the new Start Gallery – a dedicated space for families and young people offering an introduction to modern and contemporary art. Personally, I was expecting more from this space in which even well-known favourites such as Henri Matisse felt a bit flat. If you weren’t old enough to do the activities and didn’t have a teacher or guide in tow, i’m pretty sure most children would be in and out in five minutes. It is, however, rescued by a brilliant installation by Olafur Eliasson which better supports Tate’s mission to bring art to life for a wider audience.

Have your say at the Tate Exchange 

Generously, the entire 5th floor of the Switch House has been given over to this ‘open experiment’ which will invite over 50 organisations to participate in Tate Modern’s creative process through events and on-site projects. Organisations will range from charities to universities, healthcare trusts and radio stations but all with a view to using art as a way of addressing wider issues in the world and creating a drop-in space for you to share your two-penneth’s worth.

And if this isn’t enough, the gallery is sticking two additional family ‘stakes’ in the ground! Firstly they are inviting 3000 school children from across the UK to preview on Thursday with Bob and Roberta Smith, then they are allowing children and families to completely take over this weekend (18th and 19th June), with choreographer Aya Kobayashi and sound artist Dan Scott encouraging visitors to explore using unique audio soundtracks. There’s also a range of pick-up activities and daily activities and make & do’s such as Paper Aesthetics; a chance to create your own mini model of the new Switch House building, adding to a growing collection over the course of each day.

Without a doubt, new Tate Modern is absolutely magnificent, an assault on the senses and an emporium of arts fun in the broadest sense. It is worth stressing, however, that although the space is very much now the domain of immersive and experiential art forms, there are still some areas where you will need to exercise caution. In the galleries for example, not all of the exhibits are well-marked by restrictive lines (such as Bourgeois’ giant spider) yet you absolutely can’t walk through or under this piece. Confusingly in the neighbouring gallery the suspended pavilion is fair game. This swap and change between ‘come and play’ and ‘stay away’ can make it a nervy navigation for parents, so check in with every gallery attendant on the rules of engagement before you play.

With such a huge space to navigate and lots of impromptu bits going on, you will also need to plan your visit carefully. Tate’s website is comprehensive, but isn’t great for search, so take some time to peruse the £1 map and if you can pick up the handy opening weekend guide (found in Time Out yesterday) then hold onto it tight! One thing is for sure – whether you randomly potter or mission-tick each gallery, new Tate Modern is sure to be an even bigger day out than it ever was before.


New Tate Modern opens to the public on Friday 17th June (10am-10pm) followed by an opening weekend of events and activities. 

Bankside, London SE1 9TG

Admission free, although featured exhibitions carry a charge

See website for details and performance times

5 Essential family arts activities for January

This festive season was absolutely jam-packed with things to see and do, and having had so many hands on deck to get out and about, the New Year can feel like a bit of a let down. But fear not. This January is an exceptional time in the arts, with so much on offer for parents and carers with younger children. Here are my top picks for the month ahead:

1. Lumiere London
Having got the kids used to so many late nights over Christmas, leading creative company Artichoke (working in partnership with the Mayor of London) are just about to give us a very good reason to keep them up late once again! For 4 days (well, nights) this January, some of London’s best known locations and most iconic architecture will be transformed by 3D projections, interactive installations and a host of extraordinary light works as part of Lumiere London. Visitors are invited to walk the dazzling night time gallery on foot, using their map to navigate the concentration of work in and around the West End and Kings Cross. The entire programme looks awe-inspiring but specific highlights for families look set to be Neon Dogs, Circus of Light and the life-like elephant Elephantastic, which will emerge from a cloud of dust before making a slow journey into Central London to the sounds of the jungle.
Lumiere London, Various locations, 14th – 17th January, 6.30pm-10.30pm, admission free

2. London International Mime Festival
Aside from aspects of theatre that we have seen at The Unicorn, The Polka and The Albany, my visit to Hackney Children’s Theatre last year was one of the first times I have ever seen the more traditional art of mime tailored to a family audience, and it went down a storm. The kids were mesmerised whilst proud parents looked on, realising how unnecessary it was for them to narrate every turn of events. With this in mind, I really hope that future incarnations of this festival bring a bit more for younger viewers, but for those keen to explore the art of mime with little ones, there are a couple of highlights on offer. Kite at the Soho Theatre (Age guidance 7+) tells a poignant story of freedom and the joy of play, whilst the Barbican is offering a rare opportunity to enjoy vintage Charlie Chaplain in a weekend of classic circus films (certificate U)
London International Mime Festival, Various venues, 9th January to 6th February, purchase tickets via the event website

3. Mini Vault Festival
Having visited many times in the past for productions by theatre companies such as Punchdrunk, as well as the incredible Adventures in Wonderland last summer, The Vaults is fast becoming London’s premiere venue for immersive and interactive theatre. It therefore seems fitting that this curious maze of tunnels under Waterloo Station should play host to a family-friendly spectacular of underground shows and events to compliment their grown up festival which starts this month. Promising circus, puppetry, live music and even comedy sets suitable for younger ears, Mini Vault goes a long way to prove that this top-secret location isn’t just the domain of big kids.
Mini Vault Festival, Leake Street, SE1 7NN, 30th & 31st January, 13th & 14th February and 27th & 28th February, admission free (although some workshops and specific events have admission charges).

4. Southbank Centre: Winter Festival
Proving it really is for Winter and not just for Christmas, even after Slava’s Snow Show has packed up and gone home, the Southbank Centre’s popular Winter Festival is still going strong. Head to Bump Roller-Disco under Hungerford Bridge, for a less chilly alternative to ice skating. Promising dazzling lights and a pumping sound system from 11am to 11pm every day, it’s a fun way to eek out the last of the festive season (skates start at child’s size 9 through to adults size 14). Whilst you’re there, remaining conveniently located in Hungerford Car Park is also the Rekorderlig Cider Lodge where you can enjoy winter drinks (of the alcoholic and non-alcoholic variety) and Scandinavian street food in a cosy pop-up bar resembling a quintessential Scandinavian house. Aside from the festival, there’s usual draw of the Clore Ballroom as well as Gamelan workshops for pre-schoolers (Dragon Babies, Monday 11am) and some fantastic free lunchtime music with Friday’s Lunch and Tonic.
Southbank Centre Winter Festival, Belvedere Rd, London SE1 8XX, until 17th January, admission free (although some activities and events have admission charges).

5. Tickets for Michael Rosen’s Bear Hunt are available again!
January is definitely a time to give thanks that the wonderful interactive exhibitions at Discover Story Centre don’t just run for half term but for half of the year! After a sell out run over the Christmas holidays, tickets are now available again for Michael Rosen’s Bear Hunt, Chocolate Cake & Bad Things at Discover Story Centre, and it is proving one not to miss! Younger visitors have the chance to go in search of the bear, to stumble and trip in the dark forest or swishy swash in the long wavy grass, whilst older visitors can embark on a fun fact-finding mission and create their own ‘Rosen-inspired’ poems to take away. Read more about our visit at the end of last year.
Michael Rosen’s Bear Hunt, Chocolate Cake and Bad Things, Discover Children’s Story Centre, 383-387 High Street, London E15 4QZ until 10th April, admission £5 per visitor plus free day admission with £1 admin fee (under 2s free).
Note that the exhibition is only open Tuesday to Friday, 3pm-5pm in term time, but returns to daily pre-bookable all-day sessions come school holiday time (i.e. February half term).

Talking Statues: No baby babble, just a chat with a cat

These days, I spend most of my time getting back-chat from a pre-schooler, so I welcomed the idea of London statues having their say, in a brand new live art project known as Talking Statues. Masterminded by Sing London, an arts organisation making it their mission to lift public spirits, Talking Statues aims to combat the apathy felt every day, as we hurry past hundreds of statues, some very famous, on the streets of our capital.

By commissioning a host of celebrated writers, actors and comedians to create monologues for more than 20 statues in London (and Manchester), Sing London hope to set free some of the voices from our past. A chance for people to pause and contemplate their stories, even learn a thing or two.

The project really captured my imagination. It forced me to think about how much time I spend highlighting points of interest on the streets of London, yet I couldn’t remember the last time that I had singled out a statue.

Using the map available on the Talking Statues website, I devised a small walking tour for myself and the girls, a short 2-3 mile round-route from Cannon Street station, through the heart of the City. We aimed to seek out at least 4 of the statues, only one of which I knew anything about.

My story, of course, had to be far more convoluted than the mission intended by Sing London. I decided to tell the girls that the Mayor of London (yes, Boris) was so tired of everyone ignoring his beautiful statues, that he cast a spell on them, bringing them to life with voices to capture attention as people pass by. In fact, I was so sold on this story myself, that by the time we reached our first stop: Rowland Hill, on King Edward Street, I had actually forgotten the real mechanic involved in activating the voices. Suddenly the swiping or scanning of my mobile device (or typing in the URL) didn’t quite have the same appeal, but I went with it. The disconnect between this action and my story was soon rescued, however, by the excitement of the statue calling us back!

Sadly the excitement was short-lived. Either the noise levels were too high on this busy junction, or we were experiencing a technical glitch, but nothing. Poor old Rowland Hill, famous teacher, inventor and social reformer was still silent. We moved on.

Before long, we were in amongst some of the most fascinating streets of London, a lower rise London, where giant clocks clung to the side of ancient buildings and it felt as if the spire of St. Paul’s was there to greet us, whichever direction we turned. Even more exciting was the secret passageway and winding alley that we followed to reach the beautiful setting of Gough Square, home to our next stop: Hodge the Cat.

A talking cat? Yes! A talking cat. The excitement had reached fever pitch. Voiced by Nicholas Parsons, the tales of Samuel Johnson’s famous cat filled this atmospheric square and the girls listened intently to the monologue. When he stopped, we all felt that we shared something really magical. Exactly the sentiment that I’m sure this project was meant to achieve. We gave lovely Hodge a pat on the head, before reluctantly moving on to nearby Fetter Lane.

Next on the list and standing tall as we bounded up the road, was John Wilkes, advocate of free press, journalist and politician, very suitably voiced by Jeremy Paxman. It was a strong start, with the self-proclaimed “ugliest man in London” drawing a few giggles from us all. Sadly however, our comedic encounter was cut short by the nearby road works, snatching John’s voice away with the sudden drone of a steam-roller.

We decided to make our way back to Blackfriars, stopping of course to lend Queen Victoria an ear as the last in our whistle-stop tour. Prunella Scales had done a sterling job, bringing the complex personality of such a memorable monarch to life, but unfortunately for me, my tired companions were no longer amused. .

Talking Statues, in my view, is a truly wonderful initiative. In the right location with the right set of conditions, I believe it whole-heartedly achieves what it set out to do. We learned quite a bit today. We learned to listen, we learned to look up and we learned to appreciate the things that we walk past every day. Most of all, however, just as we did today, we learned that the sheer pace of our beloved (but noisy) London, is probably one of the biggest reasons that we don’t appreciate these cast-metal fellows more often.

Talking Statues is a year-long project, live on the streets of London and Manchester until August 2015.
Download the map of statue sites in London and Manchester here.

Teaming up with, Sing London is also offering budding writers the chance to find voices for 4 more statues in London and Manchester. Full details are available on the Talking Statues website. Max 400 word monologues. Deadline 17th October 2014.