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Heroes and monsters

Jerome Monahan joins a group of Year 5 pupils as they explore myths and legends at the Livesey Museum for Children

A collective gasp goes up from 35 Year 5 pupils from Malcolm Primary in Bromley on entering the Livesey Museum on the Old Kent Road. Nothing in its mundane location, opposite a gasworks and a fried chicken restaurant, could have prepared them for the enormous crouching green dragon awaiting them, its body curling up and around a central staircase. Clearly the aim is to grab children's attention as soon as they step across the threshold. The message is clear - no time now for the everyday; heroes and monsters, ordeals and quests are in the ascendancy.

"The Livesey's children's exhibitions are always 10-month-long temporary shows -combining new exhibits with appropriate borrowings of art and artefacts from the Southwark Collection," says museum officer Griff Davies.

"For this one we have some really intriguing objects including a tobacco pouch made from an albatross foot and an elephant's skull. It's thought that the ancient Greeks mistook the gap left by the trunk for an eye and the Cyclops legend resulted."

The Livesey alternates its themes, shifting the focus each year from maths or science to humanities or literacy topics. It has become adept at creating spectacular and stimulating effects on a shoestring. This year's Myths and Legends exhibition cost about pound;7,500 with a little left in the kitty for one-off holiday events such as professional storytelling and printing sets of special mythological heroes "Top Trumps". Playing with these, claims Griff, proves popular once the more dramatic parts of the show - the Minotaur's Labyrinth or the giant Hymir's boat in which Thor took on the Midgard Serpent -have been explored.

The visit begins with Griff quizzing the children about the differences between myths and legends. He says that throughout the show they are invited to touch, pull (gently), try on the exhibits. To prove the point he invites 10-year-old Shakera to enter the dragon behind him. She is shown how to manipulate the creature's eyes and tongue and set its head rolling menacingly from side to side. He explains that the exhibition is divided into sections corresponding to key mythic elements including journeys, challenges and the underworld -represented by a room dedicated to the Egyptian gods.

It is a tribute to the show's variety that throughout their 90-minute visit the Malcolm pupils are completely absorbed - sampling the most spectacular elements immediately and then moving on to the more sober material - all the while dressed in an increasingly eccentric selection of costumes and hats grabbed in transit. The shadow-puppet area proves a great success with the children using silhouette figures from a variety of creation myths to tell their own tales of mankind's origins.

Year 5 teachers Siobhan Towland and Alex Burrows are impressed by the show.

"It has clearly been built with a great deal of passion and care," says Siobhan. "At no stage has any child announced that they were bored or did not know what to do. It is also great that the children are encouraged to handle the exhibits."

The visit over, the children gather in the Livesey's courtyard to eat their lunch. It is packed with further fascinating objects including a rescued Victorian shop front, a post-box and the sinister stonebreakers' grill through which 19th-century workhouse residents had to drop chippings of the requisite size to be used for road repairs.

* Open Tuesday to Saturday 10am-5pm. The Myths and Legends exhibition is open until August 26


The Livesey Museum for Children 682 Old Kent Road London SE15 IJF Tel: 020 7635 5829


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