"It's very clean," says Samantha Cairns, head of learning and access at the Cabinet War Rooms and the Churchill Museum, as she invites Year 7 of George Watson's College in Edinburgh to sit on the floor for a short introduction to the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms. The 57 immaculately dressed 10 and 11-year-olds squeeze into one of the entrance rooms in the secret bunker. "All this was offices for top people in the Second World War," she tells them. "The Nazis never found out about this place. When the war came to an end, it was shut up as a time capsule."
One half of the group goes off to explore the time capsule, now open to visitors as the Cabinet War Rooms, the other quickly dispersing among the exhibits of the Churchill Museum, which opened in February 2005 and has just won Museum of the Year 2006 from the Council of Europe.
A wartime sign reads: "There is to be no whistling or unnecessary noise in this passage", but most of the noise comes from the exhibits. The "spine" of the museum is an interactive timeline table called the Lifeline. Hidden in its electronic drawers are 4,600 pages of documents, images and animations. When a panel is selected, a surprise is revealed: in 1930, a jet engine screaming into life; October 14, 1926, the buzzing of bees swarming across the table - it's the year Winnie the Pooh was published, a book Churchill read to his daughter, Mary, who was four at the time.
Up to 26 children at a time can use the timeline, each accessing something different. Arrows sprout and curve, like the opening credits of Dad's Army, and First World War poppies speckle the whole table, then fade as quickly as they grew. The Lifeline table is the right height for Natasha Thomas, 13, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, but she finds making the Lifeline work "a bit difficult". Her classroom assistant Elaine Hill says:
"But you found it easier to enlarge than I did."
Natasha prefers another exhibit, in which a pool of light swimming with goldfish represents Churchill's garden at Chartwell. Bubbles bring his sayings up on a screen and you can use the mouse to explore different rooms. In the gallery, Mary can be heard talking about Chartwell, while the sonorous phrases of Churchill's wartime speeches roll out from yet another exhibit. The sound ahead is the drone of bombers, competing with a jolly wartime tune.
Hannah Cockburn, 11, has done her homework. She is one of two girls who have brought their wonderfully detailed projects to show the education staff at the museum. Hannah's project includes an interview with Rupert Soames, Churchill's grandson, and she's very complimentary about the museum. "I like how it's all set out," is her expert assessment. "It's quite child-friendly."
Ashwini Arvind, 11, has also brought along her project on Churchill. She has already done much research but she says: "I liked hearing how he was when he was young, because he's such a famous person you'd have thought he did really well at school - but he didn't and that surprised me."
Traditional exhibits include Churchill's red velvet siren suit and the stuffed animals he used to mark a book's place on his library shelves. A museum card tells "The Story of My Escape", an 1899 despatch from Churchill as a war correspondent in Lourenco Marques to the Morning Post in London.
Stuart Paterson, 11, says: "It's interesting to find out about other people's lives, what they were feeling and what they went through."
As the 45-minute visit ends many children are reluctant to leave. "We probably needed a bit longer here," says teacher Susie Dutton as she shoos them out.
ON THE MAP
Churchill MuseumCabinet War Rooms Clive Steps, King Charles Street, London SW1A 2AQ Tel: 020 7766 0132 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org www.iwm.org.ukcabinet