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Take the little urchins to tusk

Betty Jerman selects some of the city's less well-known museums

London's lesser-known museums, manifestly popular with local residents, deserve to be known further afield.

The Ragged School Museum's premises, one of three Victorian canalside warehouses, were saved from demolition by the local community. Volunteer guides, telling personal stories of the past, are local people, often from families once working in what was a busy industrial area.

The warehouses, built around 1872, were used by Dr Barnardo for extra classrooms when his original free ragged school nearby became overcrowded with children from the poorest families in the district, who could not afford the penny or more a week for London board schools.

Closed in l908, the buildings became factories until the Ragged School's Museum Trust, having bought the warehouses, opened the Museum in 1990.

The nucleus of an East End history museum lies in ranks of old sewing machines, memorabilia of the once thriving docks, domestic equipment including a kitchen range and a mangle, and a canvas accompanied by colourful scraps and a tool so that visitors can contribute to a rag rug.

The highlight is the restored Victorian classroom furnished with wooden desks with attached benches set in rows facing the teacher's desk, blackboards, abacus and the store cupboard for slates and ink trays.

Hour-long classes for six to 11-year-olds from booked schools start with an introduction about what life was like for ragged schoolchildren.

The teacher wears an authentic bustled costume and, once launched into role-play concentrating on the "three Rs", the children look positively waif-like dressed up in the caps, braces and ragged trousers or mob caps and pinafores.

I watched a class, totally absorbed in learning by rote, obediently copying on to slates the elaborately written letters on the blackboard and, as they did sums, whisking dusters over one bit of work to make room.

By chanting sing-song fashion after the teacher they learned spelling, a bit of grammar and a bit of geography of Great Britain, part of the British Empire under Queen Victoria, "our Queen". The crash of the cane on a desk and the order "sit up straight!" were entirely accepted. Responding to the teacher's "Good afternoon class" with "Good afternoon Miss Perkins", they ended the formal session with applause.

The now friendly teacher's question of what they thought of that kind of school brought cries of "fun". Would they like to be taught like that? "Yes." But a boy pondered: "Did they have parents' evenings?" The murmurs came: "No work to show. It's all wiped off."

Classes are held on weekdays during term-time. Monday is reserved for special needs, and emphasises object handling. The museum is open to the public Wednesdays, Thursdays and the first Sunday of the month. Treasure hunts are available in the holidays, when events such as art workshops and joining a Victorian lesson are arranged.

History can also be studied among the walled herb garden's culinary, household, aromatic, dye and medicinal plants while the extensive front gardens provide a green oasis.

New galleries for 20th-century interiors and new education facilities will be provided in the Pounds 5 million extension, partly funded from National Lottery money, which will open in the autumn.

When six-year-olds are given the chance to play some of the Horniman Museum's collection of 6,000 musical instruments, the results may not be very tuneful but the beaming faces make up for it.

First a group is introduced to the instruments, hearing about what you might use if you want to make, say, a didgeridoo, when there are no shops around. Beans shaken in a pod and skins for a talking drum are not difficult to identify once the make-it-yourself idea is grasped, but a lyre of lizard skin and gut, graded gourds for a xylophone and a horn from an antelope, from which the demonstrator draws warm, low notes, have everybody guessing.

The Music Room embraces "anything used to make sound deliberately" with examples from bone Egyptian clappers of about 1450 BC to a 1991 Fender guitar. They are displayed in glass cases in groups such as string, wind, brass, drums, pipes.

Touch-screen computer terminals allow exploration of the geography, history, science of hundreds of instruments. Video recordings bring them to life. Headphones allow visitors to hear chosen music.

The Centre for Understanding the Environment, yet another unusual recent addition, reflects modern concerns.

A low-cost energy-efficient building, surrounded by ponds and a reed bed, it houses child-height telescopes, a rack of microscopes and video microscopes for enlarging prepared slides of insects and leaves.

An observation beehive behind glass has visitors mesmerised by the constant movement until they notice the display of Treasures from the Trails, the nature trail following a former railway in the 16-acre parkland, where there are also water and rose gardens and a bandstand - the focus of outdoor entertainments in the summer.

The Horniman's natural history collection, set around a gigantic walrus, contains animals, birds and mammals grouped by methods of locomotion such as running and climbing, matched by a remarkable and extensive display on human evolution. Ranks of skulls, bones, and whole skeletons draw attention from all age groups.

At the Geffrye Museum, pleasingly housed in a terrace of 18th-century almshouses, you move along the centuries viewing each separate, furnished room. The Elizabethan period is all dark panelling, the Stuart hardly lighter but with signs of growing scientific interests.

First indications of a lighter touch appear with Queen Anne, while the Regency interior displays elegant colours and styles, a satinwood harp, a silver teaset. A cosy clutter, knick-knacks on every surface in the Victorian period make that a children's favourite, whereas visitors tend to be shocked by the jarring carpet and chair cover colours of the 1930-40 room, until they pick out small delights such as the tassels on the chunky chairs.

Betty Jerman

Ragged School Museum, 46-50 Copperfield Road, Bow, E3.

Tel: 0181 980 6405. Free

* Horniman Museum, l00 London Road, Forest Hill, SE23. Tel: 0181 699 1872. Free

* Geffrye Museum, Kingsland Road, E2. Tel: 0171 739 9893. Free admission

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