Everyone remembers the first time they see a dinosaur. For many of us it will have been on our first visit to the Natural History Museum in London. As you walked in the Great Hall there he was staring at you, the huge skeleton of Diplodocus. We were on a junior school outing, squashed cheese and tomato sandwiches in Kensington Gardens, then round the museum with our activity sheets. It wasn’t until I visited as an adult that I was disappointed to discover he was only a plaster cast of the original, uncovered in the plains of fossil-rich Wyoming.
One memorable visit was when two friends and I took our seven children, including three toddlers in buggies, on the tube train. On the way home in rush hour the poor passengers had to contend with four large plastic diplodocuses, their dangerously long tails waving in their faces. Diplodocus is now touring round the country and you can see a real Blue Whale skeleton instead.
But Prince Albert would have been pleased how many school children and families visit Albertopolis. Over 150 years ago open fields and market gardens changed when two men had a vision to develop a part of London dedicated to the arts and sciences, using the profits of the Great Exhibition of 1851 held in nearby Hyde Park. Nicknamed ‘Albertopolis’, the area was designed to celebrate the achievements and grandeur of Victorian Britain, it is still thriving today with three museums, colleges and the Royal Albert Hall.
Prince Albert’s vision for the hall was to promote understanding and appreciation of the Arts and Sciences. When he died of typhoid fever in 1861, plans were put on hold until they were rekindled by Albert’s collaborator Henry Cole. The Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences was opened on 29 March 1871 by Queen Victoria. Albert’s very ornate statue sits across the road in Kensington Gardens. The design of the Hall was inspired by Cole’s visits to ruined Roman amphitheatres and it was originally intended to accommodate 30,000 people, reduced to 7,000 for financial and practical reasons, and today to around 5,500. Every summer it is the main venue for the BBC Proms, the world’s greatest music festival, which surely would have pleased the prince.
Even if you have never been to London, the building will be familiar if you watch The Proms on television; a good way to enjoy the concerts as you get to meet musicians and find out about the music. There is something for everyone from ‘Cuba meets Jamaica’ to the first appearance of the Estonian Festival Orchestra founded in 2011. Premiers of new music are bundled in with old favourites so no one will be scared off. You will learn to interpret the words of the commentators; ‘what an amazing sound picture’ – no tune – ‘especially commissioned work’ – it’s only five minutes long…
But you can’t beat a live performance. I must confess I have never queued for cheap tickets on the day to stand in the arena with the Promenaders. I have not lived near enough and don’t like queuing or standing, is my excuse, but enthusiasts will tell you it is a wonderful experience and some go to every concert. If you are booking seats, all you need to know is don’t book the cheap seats near the top if you want to hear your favourite pianist or violinist – the soloists look like tiny puppets going on stage. But if you are going to hear a big symphony or the Planet Suite, sit wherever you like, it will be fun. If you want to go on the famous Last Night plan well ahead and check how the ballot system works.
What are your museum memories? Have you been to The Proms?