Leonardo da Vinci @Sciencemuseum uncovers a mechanical genius with a childs-eye

A visit to the Science Museum is an investment. A trip that you need an entire day for. Unless you live in West London it’s a journey that you need to psyche yourself up for, even before the onset of the crowds and the sizeable walking distances around each gallery.

So, like us, if you’ve favoured more bite-size encounters with the museum, such as the now de-funked Launch Pad or the interactive kids gallery in the Basement, Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius is a new and surprisingly manageable exhibition which is making it even more worth the trawl.

Despite being more widely celebrated for his paintings such as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci created a remarkable body of intricate mechanical drawings that drew on his observations of the natural world and radically sought to solve problems of the day – from flight to manufacturing and even war. It was this unique style of drawing alongside his imaginative approach to engineering which really set him apart from other inventors of his time and endears any visitor – young or old, to his work.

Da Vinci saw drawing as fundamental to understanding the world, and like a child, when he drew it was without compromise. He prioritised truth over beauty, which resulted in imperfect and animated sketches, which now convert brilliantly into the many games, models and multimedia installations around the exhibition. Family highlights of the exhibition include:

Sandtimer quizzes – Quizzing the visitor on the many concepts that fascinated da Vinci, use the magnets to post your answers before the sands run out. Only the correct answers remain stuck-fast.

Gears, Pulleys and Camshafts – Great even for the very young who might tag along, this interactive station gives you a chance to discover how a simple change to the mechanics of a structure, can bring about dramatic changes in how it might operate.

Models – Flying machines, weavings looms and even early leather diving suits provide endless fascination throughout, but ‘Beating Wings’ takes some beating (if you pardon the pun). Hit the button to stop the footage of a bird in flight. Then turn the crank on the neighbouring model to replicate its position on the wind. Yup, that was Leonardo’s challenge when scoping out his flying machine. So much harder than it looks.

Also lovely is the word cloud image of da Vinci accumulated from adjectives that visitors have selected to describe him. Although this would have been better suited towards the end of the exhibition once you have digested everything on offer, it’s still good fun to participate.

The majority of the exhibition is perfectly pitched for the recommended age of 5+, with school-age children more likely to appreciate da Vinci’s efforts outside of the ‘knobs and levers’. The relationship between science and nature and the intricacies of the drawings (turned models and animations) take some explanation, but with no admission fees for under 7’s, I’d be more inclined to suggest nothing ventured, nothing gained. A view that this experimental genius would have been sure to agree with.

Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius is at the Science Museum until 4th September 2016. Admission Adults £10, Children 7-16 £8, Under 7s free. See website for opening times and directions.

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Booking now: 5 family arts activities you won’t want to miss

I am always getting asked how on earth I find out about the things that I write about, especially when most activities are sold out quicker than you can lift a limb. Sometimes it’s a tip-off by press contacts, sometimes it’s my own digging around and sometimes it’s just pure luck – a chance spot on social media or a passing conversation with a friend. 
 
With half term holidays just around the corner, and Easter looming not long after, here are 5 unmissable arts activities where only the truly organised will be richly rewarded.
 
1. Imagine Children’s Festival
The Southbank Centre’s annual art, theatre and literary festival for kids takes hold for just under two weeks in February bringing a smorgasbord of family fun. This year’s event celebrates 100 years since the birth of the great poet and storyteller Roald Dahl, and is marked by its very own programme of events including an orchestral production of the BFG and the chance to make your own very own dream jar. The infamous giant storytelling bed also returns as well as a range of events and workshops ranging from improv to writing and poetry. Outside of the paid programme there’s also a host of free activities to get involved in, suitable for children of all ages. 
 
Imagine Children’s Festival
10-21 February, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Rd, London SE1 8XX
Admission prices vary. Check specific events for age guidance
See website for details

2. Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius
The much celebrated painter of the Mona Lisa has being given special recognition by the Science Museum in this incredible exhibition which honours his status as an inventor and engineer by re-building his inventions. Promising 13 interactive games and 10 multimedia installations, the exhibition also features historical models recreated from his famous drawings and sketches of flying machines and some more modern examples too. Set to be the must-see exhibition of the year and so exciting it’s sure to put the dinosaur queue at the neighbouring Natural History Museum to shame.   
 
Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius
10 February-4 September, Science Museum, Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London SW7 2DD.  Admission Adults £10, Children 7-16 £8, Under 7s Free
Recommended age 5+

 
3. Goosebumps Kids
Last year Adventures in Wonderland set the bar very high in the world of children’s immersive theatre, so with the handiwork of the same set designer (Samuel Wyer) and the same incredible location (The Vaults) I am expecting great things! Audience members are expected to wind their way through the abandoned railway tunnels and through a series of spine-tingling tales inspired by some of Stine’s most popular creations including The Blob That Ate Everyone and The Haunted Mask. Goosebumps Kids is billed to be a shorter (50 mins, no interval) and slightly less scary take on the adult version which opens on the 6th April, but is expected to have enough twists and turns to keep you all on your (curling) toes.
 
Goosebumps Kids
From 14 May, The Vaults Theatre, Leake St, London SE1 7NN
Admission for all visitors is £15 per visitor, plus £1.50 booking fee  
Recommended age 5-11
Book tickets for Goosebumps Kids

4. Half Term at the Royal Albert Hall
If you’re feeling the need to improve your child’s listening skills, what better place to go than one of Britain’s most famous concert halls, home to the annual Proms. As well as term-time music and storytelling sessions for the under 5s, half term brings a musical extravaganza to this incredible Grade II Listed building in the form of Jazz For Kids; a special jazz session for children aged 4-9 hosted by The Dixie Ticklers. Children are invited to sing, dance, listen to the music and meet the musicians, with plenty of opportunity to fondle the instruments for themselves. When you’re done, you’re in the perfect place to make a day of it – right on the doorstep of the fabulous Kensington Gardens, home to Princess Diana Memorial Playground and the Serpentine Galleries.
 
Jazz For Kids: Jumpin’ at the Royal Albert Hall
18 February, Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AP
10.30am and 1.30pm. Admission Adults £13.24, Children £7.12
Recommended age 4-9
See website for details of this and other half term events

5. My First Ballet
For the fifth year running, My First Ballet returns to London’s Peacock Theatre in an exciting collaboration between English National Ballet and English National Ballet School, enabling children as young as three to experience an adaptation of a classic ballet production. This year’s treat is the romantic fairytale Sleeping Beauty, featuring all the magic of the traditional story but with the addition of narrators and shortened musical scores to help little ones to follow proceedings. A victim of their own success, these tailor-made productions are always a sell-out, so if you aren’t lucky enough to catch its preview in London, the production will be touring around the country until the end of May.

My First Ballet
24 March–2 April, Peacock Theatre, Portugal St, London WC2A 2HT
Times vary, check website for booking details. Tickets £10-£25, Family ticket £65
Recommended age 3+
Locations included in the nationwide tour are Norwich (8 & 9 Apr), Dartford (16 & 17 Apr), Hastings (7 & 8 May), Manchester (23 & 24 Apr), Bristol, (21 & 22 May), Woking (28 & 29 May) and Oxford (30 Apr & 1 May)

Reiner Ruthenbeck @SerpentineUK: Everyday abstract that left us all guessing.

‘It’s a giant pile of earth’ . It was a strong start.

There’s nothing better than taking kids to abstract art exhibitions where they can actually identify what they see. Sculptor and conceptual artist Reiner Ruthenbeck’s current exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery features just that, numerous everyday objects and materials presented in a way that challenges the viewer to find something new or unusual about their appearance.

And the giant pile of earth, was actually an ash heap, with two other neighbouring ash heaps, strewn with galvanised metal to form his Ash Heap series. We enjoy standing for a while, contemplating whether anything will pop out of the metal boxes that sit on top, making it look a bit like a mole hill or a rabbit warren.

We move into a passage way, pulling back a curtain to step into a pitch black room. The only thing that can be seen is a simple filament lightbulb. As we have in past exhibitions, we wait for something to happen. We stand there guessing what is to come. But it really is just a lightbulb. A single lightbulb in a pitch black room, designed to challenge the stark brightness of the everyday gallery. The pre schooler can’t wait to escape the darkness, but later, like some morbid obsession, she names it as her favourite bit.

We walk past a suitcase merrily playing a composition by the Fluxus experimental musician, Henning Christiansen. The next room is full of interesting exhibits, the most fascinating of which is two intertwined ladders. After our morning visit to the Princess Diana Memorial Playground, my little one takes some convincing not to climb them. They remind us of the magic rings trick that we received in our Christmas crackers, and we try to work out how on earth you would separate them.

Evie: ‘Mum, look at this, quick!’. I head into the last room.

Me: ‘You didn’t knock all those chairs over did you Evie?’.

The gallery attendant smiles.

Evie: ‘It’s just a pile of papers and some chairs’.

She’s not wrong.

We seem to be frequenting these very installation based exhibitions at the moment, but Ruthenbeck’s work is particularly refreshing as it is as everyday as you can get. Rather than trying to guess what we are looking at from the beginning, or me having to pretend that I know, it’s evident. Instead, the guessing comes later as we review what else we can see, what we would like to see and what (if anything) the artist is trying to tell us. It’s all good fun.

I look around and the toddler is fast asleep in her buggy. I feel sad that she’s missed out, but on this occasion, it’s probably for the best. With so many familiar objects and items, we might have seen more than just a few chairs that needed tidying up.

Reiner Ruthenbeck is at the Serpentine Gallery until 15th February 2015. Admission free.

Nearby: Rain or shine you’re in a fantastic location to make a day of it. 

Shine: Indulge the kids with a few installations of a different nature at the Princess Diana Memorial Playground. Set within the beautiful Kensington Gardens, the playground features everything from a life size pirate ship to colourful tipis and giant totem poles. Admission free. 

Rain: Less than 15 mins walk away is the superb Launchpad at the Science Museum, where curious children of all ages can explore over 50 hands-on exhibits from the world of Physics. From making water freeze, to thermal imaging and bouncing light. Recommended age 8 to 14 (but youngsters will love it too). Under 12s must be accompanied by an adult. Admission free (Recommended donation £5)