If I had been familiar with the Horniman, I would have known: they do a great line in educating children and families. But here I was, on my own, entering a room that was clearly designed to entertain and teach children of roughly nursery and primary school age: huge colourful, toy-like wooden flowers, apples, bees etc. - plenty of them with screens set in. Well, what to do? In the name of research - and since I had made the journey and paid the ticket anyway - I went round and tried every single thing on offer.
So what is there to do? The really small ones can crawl through a tunnel that represents a root system and see if they can find a stuffed mole and rabbits along the way. They may also enjoy the time lapse video showing the decomposing of dead plant matter with fungi growing out of it eventually. Also for the smallest visitors perhaps is the installation of wooden sunflowers which "follow" the "sun" like their real-life counterparts if you turn the rail left or right. Or the human-like figure you can feed cards with plant pictures printed onto them: if it's an edible one, a green light will show and the figure will grunt approvingly. If poisonous, you see the red light - accompanied by a sound that will delight children but is
unfit for the dinner table...
There are puzzles to assemble - both traditional and 3D. There are plants to be matched with their pollinators and scents you can sniff with the flower that emits them. There is brass rubbing of prehistoric plant forms, and picture cubes to be arranged in the correct order of a food chain. You can draw your own fantasy flower and see it appear on a big screen. Likewise, you can choose from a number of plants and drag them on screen to create a wildlife-friendly garden. At the end, the wildlife these plants might support appears on screen, too, along with some predators - butterflies, bumblebees, snails, a hedgehog here, a fox there.
I was quite glad no one was around when I tried the game that's like those classic car races, only in this case you are a joystick-manoeuvred bee buzzing through blades of grass, aiming to find flowers as fast as possible. I can't remember whether I ever played a game with a joystick before - and I'm certainly no natural. I regularly banged my poor bee full speed against the blades, resulting in probably a nasty headache as it seemed not only to bounce backwards but loose orientation for a number of seconds...
A little more educational, there are real-life seeds, grouped according to how they are dispersed in nature: by wind, water, fire, hanging on to animals or being buried by them as food store. There is a huge touchscreen "book" that tells about the ancestors of wheat, potatoes and the tulip and a quiz on plant facts. For children (of course!), I also liked the "powerplant" installation where, if you choose correctly what a plant needs for photosynthesis, an apparatus lights up green and starts bubbling.
Regarding contemporary topics, there is the game that teaches (on a basic level) how you will increase or reduce your carbon footprint - lots of blinking lights that need pressing at the correct moment in a race against time. And they also cover four "thorny issues" as they were called - pollution, climate change, rainforest destruction and GM crops. Interestingly, the last one did not really respond to touch anymore: Did militant opponents (or supporters?) hammer too furiously on the screen and broke it I wonder?
Coproduced by institutions from the Netherlands, France, the UK and Belgium, Plantastic! is at the Horniman Museum until November 1st. If your children are interested in plants or you want to get them interested, there are worse ways to go about than visiting this exhibition. I'm sure I'll drag mine there during the school holidays this summer - but might leave the bee race to them: you'd want to avoid embarrassing yourself in front of them if you can, no?