Ready to be scared witless, Jane Norrie visits the new Roald Dahl museum
Even before his death in 1990, Roald Dahl had become a legend, creating stories that entranced children the world over. To celebrate his popularity, a new museum has opened in Aylesbury, just 10 miles from where he wrote his books in his garden shed. It has attracted 20,000 visitors in its first four months.
An extension to Bucks County Museum, winners of the 1996 museum of the year award, the new building occupies a former 18th-century coach-house which has been brilliantly transformed into a state-of-the-art resource. Entering the museum is like walking through the pages of Dahl's books - an imaginative world where fun and learning go hand in hand. The stories are used to introduce museum objects, mainly with key stages 1 and 2 in mind.
David Erskine, keeper of the children's section, explained: "As well as being jokey and fun the tales are inventive, showing Dahl's own interest in natural history, science and technology. We aim to exploit this by offering a significant discovery experience through hands-on activities."
Several distinctive areas inspired by his books have been created. In the ground floor Discovery Gallery, you can investigate the secrets of Mr Fantastic Fox's Tunnel. Creeping and crawling through the tunnel you discover five objects, including Roman remains and a badger. With James and the Giant Peach, the focus is on insects. By means of a video microscope, you can examine magnified butterflies, mouse droppings and headlice. Dahl would have loved this.
True to the spirit of the books, the display takes a cross-curricular approach coupled with an amusing play on words. A display of Flying Things, for instance, includes a "beetle" car as well as birds and insects.
Go upstairs, past a great glass, talking elevator and you reach the Imagination Gallery, designed "to baffle the brain and boggle the eyes". Here you can enjoy a magical interactive experience. A particular children's favourite is the Shadow Booth where magic pens make the walls come alive with glowing messages - or, if you prefer, with your own shadow.
Another highlight is the Video Chromakey which lets you project your own image on to a giant overhead colour screen. You can even draw the background yourself.
Mirrors, light, reflections and illusions, high-tech wizardry or historical objects, all the facilities are interpreted by "explainers" who accompany all the groups. Visitors can also get extra information about the author and hear the stories on audiosets.
Through his books Dahl hoped to create life-long readers. The new museum goes further, creating all sorts of follow-up opportunities for investigating art, language, history, technology and science.
A visit round the museum takes one and a half hours. Forty pupils can be accommodated at a cost of Pounds 2.50 each. There is access for the disabled plus a cafe, shop and outside picnic area. School groups should book by ringing 01296 331441 between 3pm and 4.30pm.