The Livesey children’s museum really does matter

10 June 2009
The Times
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How do you save a curio such as the Livesey Museum for Children?

It is not well known, it is not glamorous, but the UK’s first museum for children is magical – and it is now in peril. Last week, shamefully, Southwark Council executive decided to cut its funding and the final council vote today will set its fate to close as early as next month. But it should be saved.

My seven-year-old son and I fell in love with the Livesey the moment we escaped from the desolate roar of the Old Kent Road in South London, pushed through its Victorian doors and stumbled upon our very own treasure island. We joined the children who were squealing with pleasure as they picked up great fistfuls of jewels and hid them in the depths of a wonderfully gaudy and evocative wooden model of a treasure island.

The rest of the museum was chock-full of great exhibits around the themes of maps: a huge wooden map of the world replete with lots of mysterious flaps, a massive game of battleships, dancing, jolting skeletons and the human brain, and a taxi that contained a magnetic map of London in its bonnet.

The Livesey was the first children’s museum in Britain. The building was given to the people by the Victorian industrialist George Livesey for use as a library, but it was converted to a museum in 1974. Since then the museum has established a reputation for some of the most interactive installations in the country. On average, they run for nine months and have focused in a highly creative way upon such diverse topics as myths and legends, home, air, rubbish and energy. Each exhibition is tailored to complement the national curriculum at early years and primary levels; it develops literacy through opportunities for reading, discussion, role-playing and storytelling. It also has one of the most playful approaches to numeracy that I’ve seen, providing lots of number games.

In addition, it has a marvellous garden, including the only recycled-bottle greenhouse in London, and vegetable plots tended by children. It attracts 18,000 visitors a year and has achieved all sorts of praise and awards, including being shortlisted in The Guardian’s Family Friendly Museum Award in 2006. It has become a model for similar museums throughout the world, with its staff members being invited to contribute to national and international advisory panels on learning through play and creativity.

The council says that it will refurbish its Cuming Museum, and add more child-centred displays to compensate for the loss of the Livesey.

It is ironic that Southwark decided to close the musem in the week that the Government called for primary school children to be given five hours of culture a week and in a climate of awareness of the need for healthy eating, environmental understanding and making the lives of children happier. The museum’s whole mission is to foster these things.

Not content with cutting its funding, the council also intends to sell off the historic building in which the Livesey is housed so that its innovative work will be lost for ever, robbing children of one of the few places that makes learning fun.

Livesey Museum for Children, 682 Old Kent Road, London SE15 (020-7635 5829, www.liveseymuseum.org.uk)

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