Robots and British Nosh

Having used the Franklin Institute as an indoor playground for a couple of years, last year we took a break from our membership so that we could return with renewed enthusiasm.  In retrospect, President’s Day was not the smartest choice for becoming members again and reintroducing the kids to the joys of science museums.  The place was absolutely jam-packed and every gallery and area was heaving with people. I do not do well in crowds at all – it’s like an instant recipe for stress and anxiety – but I also feel harassed by the behaviour of other people when places are so busy.  For example, there were way too many children pushing and shoving there way into taking turns with interactive exhibits.  My kids have a tendency to hang back and are too polite to challenge others who queue jump but they still get irked and frazzled by the rudeness of others and, of course, we then get the pleasure of dealing with our annoyed kids.  While the parents of the pushy-shovey kids seemed to be nowhere in the vicinity whenever their kids were misbehaving, conversely there were other parents who were attached like limpets to their kids which also made it nigh impossible to manoeuvre in some areas.  Imagine experiencing epic levels of irritation while trying to cheerfully engage children in science even though you are completely an Arts and Humanities person.  That was the experience I had in the Franklin Institute on Monday.







While we stopped by our favourite sections and did what activities we could, we also visited a special exhibition called Robot Revolution.  It was, strangely enough, all about how modern robotic engineering is being applied to different aspects of life.  For instance, there was a large surgical apparatus and the woman standing next to me explained that her father had actually been operated on recently by just such a machine.  There were also robotic prosthetic limbs and robots designed to assess dangers in conflict zones.  There were, however, also robots playing soccer and one that could unicycle.  A big hit with my youngest son was a robotic seal pup, designed to provide therapeutic comfort to people who can’t interact with real animals.  They also enjoyed an area where they got to clip together various cubes, each of which served a different function, in order to construct their own robots.






We did not stay at the Franklin Institute for an extended period simply because the crowds were unbearable.  It was good to be back after our year long break, however, and we were reminded about all it has to offer.  We look forward to more trips there this coming year but hopefully with much smaller numbers of people crammed into the space.

We decided to treat ourselves to a little luxury by dining out in the city.  Mr Pict selected The Dandelion, which he has eaten in several times with colleagues.  We were actually supposed to go there for my birthday celebration but there was a stuff up with the booking so it did not happen.  I think, therefore, that it was my Unbirthday dinner.  The Dandelion serves British cuisine.  For many decades, people scoffed at the idea of British cuisine, regarding it was an oxymoron, but British food can actually be really very good.  The restaurant is housed in what looked to have been a residential building and was decorated in a very eclectic way, a sort of ramshackle chic.  It reminded me of a mixture of junk shops and cafes from my childhood.  Of course, we loved the tastebud nostalgia of the whole experience too.  Our children immediately ordered glasses of Ribena – a blackcurrant squash from the UK – and I had a Pimm’s Cup.  There were several things I could have ordered but I plumped for the fish and chips as I was eager to see if they could make chips the way they do in Britain, crisp on the outside and fluffy in the middle, and I am happy to report that they were a very tasty success, as was the beer battered fish.  I usually only manage one course of food but I pushed my limits because there was Sticky Toffee Pudding on the menu.  I have not had a Sticky Toffee Pudding since we emigrated (I really ought to make it but never do) so I just could not resist the temptation.  Not only was the cake delicious and light and deliciously treacly, but it was also served with date ice cream.  Mr Pict and the Pictlings all loved every morsel of their two courses of food too.  Indeed, Mr Pict declared that the short rib was the best he had ever consumed.  The luxury of delectable food in a pleasant setting with great service went a long way to mitigate against the stress of an overcrowded museum and ensured that our President’s Day trip to Philly was a success.


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Sunday in the Park with Picts

On a normal, everyday basis, I am pretty used to living in America now.  There are times, however, when I almost pinch myself and think to myself how weird it is that I live here.  Sunday was just such a day.  The littlest Pict – as part of his birthday festivities – requested a trip to New York City.  So we did.  And that felt a bit weird and also pretty cool.

Young kids travel free on the New Jersey transit on weekends so – with three of our kids qualifying – we determined that we could make a trip to NYC an affordable day trip.  We crossed state lines by car and hopped on the train.  It was the first time my kids had ever been on a double-decker train, a concept which they thought was excitingly awesome.  We travelled there on the top tier and came back on the bottom one so that they could experience both decks.  They thought it was cool to be eye level with people’s feet when on the bottom deck.  In really no time at all we were at Penn Station and right in the midst of midtown Manhattan.

The train tickets were our expense for the day so we were all about free fun.  We strolled up through the smack-bang-wallop sights and sounds of Times Square and continued on a few blocks until we reached Central Park, the focus of our trip.  Yes indeed: we essentially travelled all of the way to New York in order to play in a park.  Also kind of weird and kind of cool.


We were no sooner in Central Park – which was absolutely thronging with people out enjoying the Sunday sunshine – than my four kids all scarpered off to climb on rocks.  They scrambled up and down the rocks like a herd of little mountain goats.  I have acrophobia so watching their antics gives me the heebie-jeebies but I don’t want to turn my kids into little quaking jellies like me so I try to let them just get on with it.  Of course, all four of my kids have broken teeth through face planting before so perhaps my hands-off policy is not the best.



Our 9 year old has the most powerful imagination of the bunch and he is also the most persuasive so he engineered a game they could all play on the rocks.  The game was very complex, too complex for me to comprehend, but it definitely involved battling mountain orcs.  Occasionally I would spot another child or two wander towards my kids, observing them, perhaps tempted to join the fray, but my kids are kind of a pack and completely wrapped up in their game there was not a chance anyone else was going to get absorbed into their play.  That’s the thing about a gang of four brothers who are also best buddies: they have each other so they can tend towards exclusivity.  So they ran around on the rocks for a couple of hours, being orcs, killing orcs, and ever so often Mr Pict and I would herd them a few yards further into the park so that we could make some sort of progress.  They would then career around and caper on some other rocks for a good while.







Eventually they decided they were up for a stroll.  They were quite taken with the pond near the Hallett Nature Sanctuary so we idled there for a while before doubling back towards the Dairy so we could gulp cold water from the drinking fountain there and refill our water bottles.  The boys then decided they wanted to see some statues so we wandered along Literary Walk where we saw Shakespeare, Walter Scott and Robert Burns.  We the continued along the Mall to Bethesda Terrace because I wanted to see the Bethesda Fountain actually operating.  I had seen it on my trip to New York a couple of months ago but that was in very different weather conditions.  The bronze angel dates from the early 1870s and symbolises purity, hence the lily in her hand.  Below her feet are four cherubs who apparently represent purity, health, temperance and peace.










We then cut across to the east and wended our way past the model boat pond, which was full of model yachts competing with a few ducks, and then to the Alice in Wonderland Statue.  I had had a notion to take the boys on a highlights tour of Central Park statues but they had spent so long enjoying simply running around on the rocks and across the grass that my plan was abandoned as soon as it was hatched.  They did, however, want to see the Alice statue.  It was, as always, covered in children.  I managed to get an almost child-free photo of it last time I was in Central Park but there was no chance of that this time.  The photographer in me might find that a little dismaying but the parent in me is much stronger and enjoyed seeing all of the kids – not just my own – enjoying the sculpture and becoming part of the Mad Hatter’s tea party.  Half a century of kids clambering all over the statue has given it a glowing patina.  My kids particularly enjoyed exploring beneath the mushrooms, finding all the smaller sculpted details of bugs and beasties, and also enjoying the shade it provided.








We then popped out onto 5th Avenue with its many museums behind us and its miles of very expensive shops in front of us.  We had not even reached the southside of Central Park before the kids started to flag so they had an ice cream to fortify themselves for the many more steps to come.  We did, however, decide to add another free item to our day’s itinerary not least because it offered us some shade and air conditioning, and that was a trip into FAO Schwarz.

FAO Schwarz is the oldest toy store in America, having been founded in 1862, but sadly it is going to be closing its doors this summer.  I was eager to get the kids into this iconic shop before it ceased to be in that location and perhaps even ceased to be permanently.  The store front – part of the General Motors Building – is actually quite unassuming but is Tardis-like once inside.  I was instantly wowed by the chill blast of the air conditioning but my children were wowed, their eyes like saucers and their jaws agape, by a massive display of cuddly toys.  It was like a zoological park of plush animals.  Some of these were massive and carried massive price tags to match.  Our 8 year old was smitten with unicorns and pegasuses the size of Shetland ponies but a lifetime of pocket money was not going to get him one.  Knowing there was no way we were going to cover the whole store, the boys were asked to determine which areas and displays they wanted to see.  Inevitably, therefore, the sections we visited were for superhero action figures, Minions, video games and Lego.  The kids had a great time looking at all the toys, mentally creating lists for Santa.




Then it was time to leave the soothing cool of the toy store and go back out onto the busy, baking streets.  Somehow the walk back to Penn Station felt so much longer and further than the walk to Central Park had been that morning.  The train was surprisingly busy for a Sunday, alarmingly so since we had to walk the length of several carriages to find one that had space.  The kids’ feet and legs were pegging out at the mere thought of there being standing room only all the way back to our destination station.  Thankfully, at the penultimate carriage, we found some spaces on the bottom deck.  We sank into the chairs, exhausted, sticky from humidity and park dust, but very glad that our very first day trip to New York City had been a grand success and one I think we shall repeat.

A Visit from Friends

Yesterday two of our friends from Argyll came to visit us, the first of our friends to visit us at our home.  They are a lovely couple – two of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet – and because they are so lovely they took a day out of their vacation in Baltimore to come and see us.  Aside from being friends, J and B have earned brownie points galore with us.  When I was the manager of a local childcare charity, J was my right-hand woman.  I seriously could not have functioned in that role without her knowledge and diligence.  And B once removed Mr Pict’s tooth* while the four Pictlings swarmed around the room on not-their-best-behaviour.  To further endear themselves to us, they brought with them gifts of salad cream for Mr Pict and the two youngest boys (who are addicted to the stuff) and lashings of chocolate for the kids and me.  I have not had a morsel of British chocolate in 18 months.  I could have devoured a whole family size bar in one sitting but I am going to be good and ration it out.  Maybe.  We had a lovely day of chatting over news from home, their trip to America and lots of geekniess all accompanied by cups of tea.  Catching up with friends makes me simultaneously homesick and quells the homesickness but we feel very lucky and glad to have friends who want to come and visit us in Pennsylvania.

*B is a dentist and not a sadist.

Art of Lego at the Franklin Institute

Our original plan had been to let our Franklin Institute annual membership expire and then take up an annual membership to something else.  However, not only did we get a great deal on a renewal of our membership but we have found that we enjoy popping into the Franklin Institute so much that it was worth continuing our membership.  The place is basically an indoor playground for our brood which has been a particularly worthwhile investment this winter will all the cold, ice and snow.

This past weekend, we had out first non-family-member house guests.  They only just qualify as non-family since Nacho is Mr Pict’s oldest friend (in terms of longevity, not age) and is pretty much part of the family whether he likes it or not and that means his partner gets co-opted too.  Looking for something that would occupy the kids while also engaging the adults, the Franklin Institute was the obvious choice.  Plus they are hosting a travelling exhibition all about lego named The Art of the Brick.  It was a must-see for we lego fanatics.  We were not disappointed by the exhibition.

The first section of the exhibition was famous works of art reproduced using nothing but lego bricks.  Every single painting or sculpture was instantly recognisable despite the unusual medium which not only testifies to the flexibility of those little plastic blocks but also to the power of certain works of art to become iconic.  Our oldest son had wondered if there would be the entire Bayeux tapestry made out of lego, thinking back to our visit to Bayeux a few years ago, and lo and behold there was a small section of the tapestry.  There was also the Mona Lisa, a Rembrandt self-portrait in his distinctive murky, shadowy tones, the Girl with the Pearl Earring, her earring standing proud from the rest of the lego, and the Vetruvian Man, almost monochrome yet still immediately identifiable.  There were particular highlights among the many reproductions of two dimensional works.  The colours of the bricks in The Scream were spectacular and the screaming figure had been rendered as a sculpture emerging from the landscape.  My kids loved re-enacting the Scream.  The textural paint of Van Gogh’s Starry Night had been recreated through use of lots of little studs swirling across the sky.  The graphic quality of Hokusai’s Great Wave was perfect for the geometric lego blocks.  American Gothic had been turned into a sculpture.  My personal favourite, however, was the lego version of Klimt’s Kiss which had been turned into a full size three dimensional sculpture.  The lego bricks were used to create all the luscious pattern in the figure’s clothing and I was impressed by the way the curves had been sculpted out of a material so blocky.





The second section was devoted to famous sculptures.  There was the beautiful bust of Nefertiti, Michelangelo’s David, complete with pert brick butt, a Degas ballerina, the Willendorf Venus, a Chinese Imperial Archer and even a massive Moai.  I know how long it takes my kids and I to build a lego set so we were staggered by how long it must have taken the artist – Nathan Sawaya – to build these full size sculptures, especially without instructions.

The final section was a showcase for Sawaya’s original works of art.  They were amazing, not just in terms of the engineering involved but also the imagination and creativity.  Many were human figures that seemed to suggest some sort of emotional state.  There was a kneeling figure whose hands had broken down into individual bricks which represented the nightmare of the artist no longer having the use of his hands.  There was a figure swimming, half submerged.  There was one peeling off its blue brick skin to reveal a grimacing skull beneath the face.  Two plump figures walking hand in hand.  A gigantic red head.  A hunched green figure emerging from a wall.  There were massive colourful skulls, a huge dinosaur skeleton, a series of props built from lego which featured in an accompanying gallery of photographs.  Finally – as a nod to this particular locale on the exhibition’s tour – there was a liberty bell with the crack created out of brightly coloured bricks.










After the exhibition, we then had a jaunt around the rest of the museum visiting the boys’ favourite haunts, including sitting in the aeroplane cockpit, making circuits in the electricity section, several runs around the heart, a pedal on the sky bike, surfing and wall climbing in the sports section and a scramble around in the brain climbing frame.  Another great day out and very good value for money.  We definitely feel confident in our decision to renew our Franklin Institute membership.


Maryland Science Centre, Baltimore

On Saturday, we Picts took a mini road trip to Baltimore in order to meet up with a friend, her husband and kids, who live in Maryland.  My mother-in-law is actually from Baltimore originally yet I have only actually been there once before and that was way back in 1995.  It only takes us about two hours to get there so we really ought to take trips there more often in future.

It was a grey and rainy day so our choice of venue for the get together was perfect.  We met at the Maryland Science Centre.  It has a reciprocal arrangement with the Franklin Institute so we could use our membership pass from there to gain free entry at the Maryland Science Centre.  Despite that, the cashier insisted on charging us for tickets for two of the kids.  I was about to sally forth with righteous indignation when she revealed that the price for those tickets was $2.  I thought I would let that pass.  It was a dollar entry day.  That meant the place was hoaching, a good Scots word meaning teeming.  In fact, as we were leaving, there were still queues outside the door in the pouring rain.

We started off in the dinosaur section.  There were lots of replica skeletons rampaging through the space which the kids could get up close to and thus gain a sense of scale.  My kids especially liked being able to touch the skulls and they spent a long time brushing sand off fake fossils, measuring bones, making footprints and placing bones in position in order to rebuild a fossil skeleton.  There was also a live lizard in a tank and a very chubby and very indolent bullfrog named Jabba who the younger kids found fascinating.  They also spent a great deal of time lounging around in dinosaur footprints.  It was actually great that they spent so long in that section since there is not a dinosaur section in the Franklin Institute and the kids found it so engaging.  I mean, what kid doesn’t love dinosaurs?

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We then moved on to the earth science section.  There the kids had a lot of fun creating a tornado.  It required the air to be undisturbed to form a funnel so our kids got uber-frustrated when a heap of other kids kept sticking their hands into the air stream but that just made the sense of accomplishment that bit sweeter the times that they finally got it to swirl upwards.  They then all used Google maps to find the location of their homes, with my kids finding both their house here in Pennsylvania and our former home in Argyll, Scotland, and dressed up in polar explorer thermal jackets.  Another big hit was a large bowl that contained “clouds”.  The children spent ages wafting their hands through the vapour, blowing it away from the bowl’s edge and my 9 year old even stuck his head in it.




There were also experiments we were familiar with from the Franklin Institute and science centres we had visited back in Britain.  While my friend’s kids were patient enough to wait for an opportunity to use them, my kids could not be bothered with hustling their way through the packs of kids to try and get a turn.  I guess my British kids are just way too used to queuing to deal with the chaotic thronging of so many other kids.

Meanwhile I was started to feel starved of fresh air and felt like I was experiencing hot flushes.  The grown ups were starting to feel frazzled and the kids were beginning to get fractious.  We could have had a “fun” competition over which child was going to blow a gasket first.  We, therefore, undertook a rapid fire and incomplete tour of the human body section.  My kids enjoyed running through a maze-like set-up which I think was supposed to teach them about the structure of cells but which they just saw as a much-needed opportunity to run around and burn off some energy.   That made it clear that the kids were no longer engaging in the content of the Science Centre so we said our farewells to our friends and headed back out into the welcome fresh, chill air.


It was a good Science Centre and my kids especially loved the dinosaur section but I think my kids have been spoiled by their several visits to the Franklin Institute.  Possibly they would have enjoyed their visit more had there not been an overwhelming number of people visiting, thanks to dollar day, because my boys don’t do well with crowds in confined spaces, especially when those crowds are not forming orderly queues.  However, it is definitely worth a visit if you are in the Baltimore area with kids and it certainly appeals to a wide age range.  We will definitely go back to Baltimore some time to explore it’s other attractions.



Climbing around a Brain at the Franklin Institute

The first time we went to the Franklin Institute, back in March, we decided to take out an annual family membership.  We had only covered a few sections of the interactive museum on that trip so a return visit was definitely in order, even if we had not had the annual ticket.  It, therefore, made sense to take my parents there during their visit from Scotland.

The Franklin Institute recently opened a whole new area which is dedicated to the science of the brain.  It was, therefore, there that we started our visit.  The kids loved all of the interactive exhibits.  It’s a brilliant way to keep them engaged with things and to have them absorbing learning through osmosis.  It was diverting and absorbing for adults too and certainly I could have spent a lot longer in that area of the museum than I did but my pace was dictated by that of my children.  They learned about neurons and pathways, got to see brains at different ages and saw scans of brains.  There was even a docent with plasticised animal and human brains teaching the kids how to compare brains.  My 7 year old loved seeing the horse brain (which he was permitted to touch) since he is a massive fan of horses.  He was glad to learn that a horse is much “brainer” than a cow.  He also showed them how to compare a healthy brain with that of someone with Alzheimer’s which was quite arresting.  They also enjoyed sections about how the brain processes the senses with things like optical illusions and a room that induces motion sickness.  Their favourite section, however, was a dark room filled with a funky climbing frame to illustrate how neurons travel around the brain.  They loved it.  They could have stayed in that room for hours.

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We then decided to go and see an Imax show.  My children have never been to see an Imax movie before so we thought this would be a fun way of them experiencing such a large scale projection.  We opted to see a documentary about Great White Sharks since the kids and I are fascinated by sharks.  We have the Ocearch Global Shark Tracker app on my phone and like to check in and follow where the sharks are.  My 7 year old has particular favourites in April, Lydia and Katherine.  The Imax show was brilliant.  The focus was on conservation efforts and trying to educate people about sharks  – and Great Whites in particular – in order to eliminate the fear that has led to their persecution and endangerment.  It was quite breathtaking to see the sharks being projected on that scale.  I admit, however, that I had to close my eyes during some of the seascape bits as it was a bit boak-inducing.

Immediately after that, my oldest had a shot on the Skybike.  This is a bike suspended on a wire in the ceiling of the Franklin Institute.  It makes my knees turn to jelly just thinking about it but he doesn’t have vertigo and was eager to have a go.  There was too long a queue during our last visit there so this time he grabbed the opportunity to have a turn.  This was much to the consternation of his little brothers who were all massively miffed that they did not meet the height requirements.

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We then asked the boys to nominate sections of the Institute they had visited before but would like to return to and show their grandparents.  I was surprised when they elected to revisit the section dedicated to sports science.  My kids are all pretty active but none of them are sporty either in terms of playing or spectating.  Clearly the interactive nature of the exhibits won out over the subject matter.  Unfortunately the race car exhibit was out of order and some boys were hogging the area that measured the speed of a pitched baseball.  Nevertheless my kids had a blast with the wheelchair racing, climbing wall, penalty shoot out and surf board.

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A hop, skip and jump then brought us into Isaac’s Attic where they had fun with all sorts of interactive experiments involving gravity, motion and light.  My 8 year old especially enjoyed the sections involving light – coloured lights changing the appearance of a printed art image and spinning a block to create different shapes.  They also loved an experiment that involves shuttling a ball back and forth using the force created by pulling down on a rope and releasing it.

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A favourite section is the one focused on the human heart.  My younger three kids raced around the giant heart umpteen times and then crawled and jumped around inside blood vessels.  The 11 and 7 year olds were also fascinated by the rotating display of heart of various sizes, from a minuscule canary heart to a massive whale heart.  We then finished with the gallery next to it which is all about geophysics.  The boys had fun assisting their Grandad with building structures that would survive an earthquake.  They also enjoyed crawling through yet more tunnels and playing a space invaders style game about greenhouse gases and global warming.

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We had a brilliant time and will definitely go back again.  And again.  And again.  I think my kids would go back today just to play in the brain section.  My parents also thoroughly enjoyed the Franklin Institute and were impressed by all the interactive exhibits.  We highly recommend.

The Franklin Institute

On Saturday we went to the library and borrowed their family pass for the Academy of Natural Sciences.  Unfortunately when we opened up the pack we discovered the librarian had given us a pass to an arboretum.  Arboretums are cool and we will go there at some point and no doubt enjoy ourselves but right now the landscape is so freeze burned that it looks like the type of tundra musk oxen migrate across.  Definitely an outing for better weather and recovered plant life.  So Mr Pict suggested that we head to the Franklin Institute instead so that is what we did yesterday.

In the end we actually took out an annual family membership at the Franklin Institute because it made more economic sense for us as a family of six to do so when we are likely to be back at least one more time and probably more within the next year.  We had been told it was the best attraction in Philadelphia and, while I cannot judge that since I have not been to other places yet, certainly it is a superb science and technology museum.  It is very well organised into sections of knowledge and it is really interactive and hands on for the kids.  I am not really a science museum person – I am definitely an arts and humanities person – but even I found it to be engaging.

We actually started off our visit with the special exhibition which is on the subject of Pompeii.  I guess that ties into science because of the volcano but it was a bit of a stretch.  Nonetheless, it was a good opportunity for us to show the kids some of the artefacts from such an important archaeological site.  Mr Pict is an obsessive Romaphile; he loves ancient Rome.  He was, therefore, especially happy to be given another opportunity to share his obsession with his sons.  Mr Pict and I have actually been to Pompeii, in October 2006, so for us the exhibition was lacking on impact but only because we have been spoiled by the luxury of actually having been there and seen everything in context and even by the archaeological riches on display at the museum in Naples.  However, the items on display were well chosen and the exhibition was organised in a thoughtful and informative way.  The kids loved seeing all the Roman glass, the gladiator helmet and grieves and guessing which particular god was being portrayed in each art work.  The one section that did not work for me was the conclusion where they had casts of the original casts of the bodies.  That room followed one in which there was a dramatic rendering of the day of Vesuvius’ eruption and to then follow that with casts of the victims seemed a bit trite, sensationalism followed by individual tragedy.  It is also very difficult for those casts to have the same impact out of context.  When we saw them at Pompeii, I had a sorrowful lump in my throat seeing all the people in the Garden of the Fugitives huddled up together.  As individuals on plinths it just seemed a bit lacking in emotional sensitivity.  But, as I say, Mr Pict and I are spoiled and the exhibition was still well worth visiting.

The kids had fun learning about different types of energy by conducting over-sized experiments in the Isaac’s attic section.  Particular hits were the experiments using light and one that used the impact of air to push a ball back and forth through a tube.  I am a physics dunce so I have no means of describing that with any sort of scientific accuracy.  They got to look through a telescope at sun spots which was fun since it was not something they had ever done before.  They loved all of the interactive exhibits in the sports science section, especially the virtual wheelchair racing and the surf board.  We watched a show in the planetarium – and I almost nodded off in the dark.  We visited the geology area but the kids were not engaging with that so we decided we would jettison that and return to it with fresh minds on a different day so we concluded our trip with a visit to the Heart section.  In that gallery, the kids saw representations of human blood vessels and cells and a great revolving model graphing the different sizes of animal hearts, from canary to whale.  They also got to learn about medical science through lots of interactive exhibits.  Their absolute highlight, however, was getting to scramble around inside a gigantic heart, as if they were the blood cells being pumped around it.

We were in the museum for five hours but there were whole galleries of the museum we did not even visit or touch on and areas we only skimmed the surface of and areas the kids would like to do again so the annual pass was definitely a worthwhile investment.  If you happen to find yourself in the Phildalphia area with kids, I highly recommend the Franklin Institute.

Here are some of my photos from the visit.


New York, You Nork – Day 1: Comic Books and Ripley’s

We decided that our first family mini-vacation in America should be to New York City.  This was partly because, at under two hours away, it was an easy city break to accomplish and plan for and partly because one of the first things our boys asked when they learned we were emigrating to the States was, “Can we go up the Empire State Building?” closely followed by, “Can we see the Statue of Liberty?”  New York is, of course, also of historic significance in many an immigrant story but that was not a factor in our decision making.

 It’s been an arduous six months for us all as a family.  We were separated, of course, when Mr Pict moved to America in advance of the kids and I following and then the whole process of settling into some sort of normal life and routine has been a bit of a strain at times, not to mention the ups and downs of trying to adjust to a new way of life in a new country.  Mr Pict and I also felt that it was important for the boys to gain a better understanding of the geography of and the expanse that is America by experiencing some travel.

 We aimed to leave the house before 8am and, thanks to our kids being pretty well seasoned travellers and Mr Pict and I being experienced packers, we managed to leave just shortly after 7.  Just under two hours later – including a pit stop in New Jersey – we were in the centre of New York City.  It was an incredibly easy journey in, a pretty straightforward route that took us through the Lincoln Tunnel and straight into midtown Manhattan.  We parked up the car – or rather a valet did, something that always freaks me out about US multi-storey car parks – and headed along 42nd Street to do some exploring.

 The boys were instantly enthralled by the sights and sounds: electronic billboards, neon signs, yellow taxi cabs, skyscrapers, honking horns, theatre posters, music; it was a sensory overload.  Although they have been to major cities in Britain, including London, I don’t think they had ever experienced anything quite like it.  From 42nd Street, we headed down Broadway – passing en route the office building that Mr Pict works from when he is in New York, a bit of personal sight seeing – and headed towards the Empire State Building. 

 First stop was a comic book store spread across two floors.  Mr Pict and I are unabashed and avid geeks in lots of areas of obscure knowledge – things like ancient Rome for him and plagues for me – so it is not surprising at all that our children have all turned out to be wee geeks.  However, neither he nor I have any connection to superheroes or comic books yet our sons are somewhat obsessed with them.  Our oldest son loves to pore over the comic books whenever we are in a comic book store – and we are delighted that we have a great one not ten minutes drive from our house – and the other three love the comics and the merchandise, the cult bits and bobs, just the idea of collecting.  So we spent a good 40 minutes in there as they oohed and aahed at the cases of books, shelves of comics and displays of models and figures and toys.

 We emerged from the comic store as the snow began to fall, just tiny flakes at first but then getting chunkier.  The ground was quite wet from the thaw of the previous snow fall and the air temperature relatively mild, however, so the snow was not settling on the ground.  That was when the boys decided they were peckish so Mr Pict stopped at a food cart and bought a hot dog for the littlest one and pretzels for the other three boys.  So they stood, the four of them, huddled in the snow against the side of a bank, chomping their way through NYC street food.  I think they had it on their checklists all along that they wanted to eat food from a street cart as part of their tourist itinerary.


 Ultimately, just as we arrived at the entrance to the Empire State Building, we decided to jettison the whole plan.  The snow had made the sky murky grey and the visibility was so reduced we would have been spending money on a limited view and seriously reducing the impact of the entire experience for the boys.  So we turned heel and headed back the way we came.  However, we took a diversion through Macy’s, just so we could say we had been through what was until 2009 the world’s largest department store and – much more importantly – to have some respite from the biting wind. 

Our 8 year old, the family magpie, loved all the displays of bling and I had to tell him to stop touching brightly coloured leather bags as he walked past them.  He was entranced by the chandeliers in the jewellery section of the store, one that fell like sparkling raindrops from an oval in the ceiling and one that was a combination of crystals and white feathers – like the debris from an angel.  You can tell our kids have grown up in the sticks by the way they behave around escalators: to them escalators hold the same allure as amusement park rides.  It’s sweetly sad really.  So we had an excursion up one set of escalators just so we could immediately come back down again.  Even I, however, got excited when I spotted some escalators that led to the basement level.  So excited in fact that I shouted my husband and kids back.  The cause of my excitement was that the escalators were wooden.  Presumably they were the original escalators from the shop’s opening.  I had never, in my whole life, seen let alone been on wooden escalators.  It had to be done.  So the six of us were transported downstairs on a set of wooden escalators to then immediately return to the ground floor on the companion set.  I can’t imagine where the kids get it from.  It seriously stands as one of the highlights of this trip that I can now say I have been on wooden escalators.


 We popped out the other side of Macy’s and it was then a brief but bracing walk from there – past a whole legion of yellow taxi cabs – back to 42nd Street.  We had had a discussion about which indoor activity to do with the kids as we walked, presenting them with a choice of either Madam Tussaud’s or Ripley’s Believe It or Not.  In Madam Tussaud’s favour was the fact that they had a whole display about the Avengers – which my little comic book nerds loved the idea of – but against it was the fact there would be a whole host of models, sports stars being the obvious example, that really only my husband would recognise.  In Ripley’s favour was the fact it was going to be a varied collection of exhibits, rather than just room after room of looky-likey wax models, but against it was the fact that the boys might just find it a bit too obscure or maybe even grotesque in parts.  I personally was rooting for Ripley’s.  One of my geeky interests is the history of sideshows.  I am intrigued by society’s relationship with what is categorised as and perceived to be weird and abnormal.  I find it a fascinating and absorbing topic and have read all the books I have ever found on the topic of sideshows, including histories and biographies of famous “freaks” and of PT Barnum.  I find the whole idea of exploiting human difference and disability for entertainment morally repellent but, on the other hand, in a bygone era when many of these people might have been outcasts or at best dependent on others for their welfare, they were able to support themselves financially by being employed as sideshow acts.  It’s that ethical dichotomy that I find so interesting as well as the light it casts on social mores and attitudes of the time and also of our understanding of either obscure or misunderstood medical conditions and physical phenomenon. So that is another reason why Ripley’s was very much my cup of tea.  I was glad, therefore, when the decision was taken that that was where we would go.

 We had not even reached the head of the queue to buy tickets when our 8 year old was overcome with excitement seeing a Perspex case containing some swirling water because he seems to be obsessed with the word vortex.  I meanwhile was excited to see a two-headed calf in a glass case and our 4 year old loved a small glass case in which some stuffed ferrets, dressed in their gladrags, were having a dinner party.

 On entering the Odditorium, the first display was of some incredible metal armour for an elephant which the boys thought was cool.  That was opposite a stuffed six-legged cow and the world’s largest hairball.  That is just a little indication of how varied this “museum” was.  I loved it!  Weird and random is so up my street.  Happily, as well as being little geeks, my kids are also fans of the random and strange so they also scuttled from exhibit to exhibit to see what fascinating weirdness there was to find there.  There were lots of taxidermies of animals with additional limbs or heads and also an albino giraffe.  There were also models of some famous sideshow acts such as Robert Wadlow, the giant, and Johnny Eck, who was often billed as the “amazing half-boy”. 

The youngest two boys loved the fact there was a bookcase that slid away from the wall to reveal another room, and every new room in fact contained a plethora of diverting, intriguing and fascinating items.  That is another reason why the visit worked so well: whereas a visit to a less eclectic exhibition might lead the kids to get bored (and even I admit to being thoroughly sick of Minoan libation cups after seeing the umpteenth display of them in the Heraklion Museum), the very diversity and randomness of this collection of oddities meant that every room could be relied upon to have something for everyone.  Our oldest son, for instance, finds scientific things interesting so he thought it was cool to see a knobbly shard of glass that had formed when lightning struck sand; our second son likes creativity so he loved a display, showcased beneath a glass platform floor, of the Spanish Armada made entirely from matchsticks, a feat of human patience and fine motor dexterity; our 6 year old likes anything rude or gross so both he and I were amused by a club made out of walrus penis; and our youngest loves animals so was captivated by the calves with extra heads and the chickens with extra legs or the length of the stuffed anaconda or the wine in a bottle filled with snakes.  My poor husband really doesn’t get the appeal of freaky stuff so was just dragged along in our wake but even he found Napoleon’s death mask interesting and the locks of hair from historical figures diverting.



There was one particularly gross room – which is a positive in my regard – containing instruments of torture.  My kids are pretty gruesome so loved the macabre items such as the Iron Maiden, the iron gibbet (which they recognised from pirate movies) and they all had a turn in the stocks.  There was also half a human head, sectioned in profile, which they found appealing and repellent in equal measure.



 A nauseating, dizzifying walk through a rotating tunnel – a very clever optical illusion in which the brain convinces the body it is doing something other than walking on level ground in a straight line – took us into a room full of shrunken heads.  We all had a go on an interactive screen at turning our own portraits into shrunken heads, which was fun, and my oldest son and I (both having a long-standing interest in such things as shrunken heads and mummies) toured the cases looking at each of the examples.  I am always morally torn when looking at things like mummies: I find them utterly fascinating and enjoy the opportunity to study them up close but at the same time I cannot shake the feeling that this was once someone’s child, someone’s parents, someone’s sibling and now here they are shoved in a glass case on display for the entertainment of others.  They are quite amazing things, however, and for all that they are grotesque and perhaps a bit on the creepy side to our 21st Century, western standards, the fact that people put the heads through this process as an act of preservation, to keep their ancestors and loved ones close to them, is quite touching at the same time – though I am not going to be shrinking anyone’s head for posterity when the time comes for my loved ones to shuffle off their mortal coils.

Having enjoyed our tour of Ripley’s, the kids needed to rest their legs and have an energy boost so we found a nearby café where Mr Pict bought them each hot chocolate and a soft baked cookie to dunk in it.  I sipped a cup of tea and we had a rest and a chat before we then headed to our hotel to check in.

My husband had found a hotel with an apartment room that could sleep six and which had a small kitchen which would enable us to eat in for two meals per day while taking packed lunches for the third.  It was ideally situated not far from 42nd Street.  We checked in with ease and Mr Pict went off to the car park to collect our suitcases and the bags of food we had brought while the kids and I explored our “home” for the next two nights.  It was a lovely set of rooms – a bedroom for all four boys to sleep in and a multi-purpose room for cooking, dining, sitting and where the husband and I would sleep on the sofa and a folding bed – smartly decorated and nicely presented, bland but comfy.  We even had a balcony, although it overlooked a busy interchange and some water tanks on the adjacent rooftop, except we could also see One World Trade Center in the distance and, if you looked sideways, it was possible to see the Empire State Building.

We had had a plan to go out to find something to eat – a meal out as a treat – and then wander around Times Square in the dark to see all the lights but the snow was falling again and actually settling plus we could sense a rebellion might be mounted by at least half of the kids so we decided not to push our luck at the end of what had been a really great day of family fun.  Instead Mr Pict went out to get some Chinese takeaway and thus fulfilled one of my ambitions since I have never before had Chinese food served in those little cardboard cartons.  So we ate our takeaway buffet and the middle children watched ‘Iron Man 2’ on the TV while the rest of us played pontoon.  Then we read to the boys and settled them down to sleep at the end of a successful first day in New York.


Meeting the bugs at the Insectarium

Today we went on a family trip to the Insectarium on the outskirts of Philadelphia.  

My four boys and I love all things creepy-crawly.  Back in Scotland, we loved to go on minibeast hunts as part of our nature rambles.  Of course, in Scotland there was nothing poisonous or venomous in the bug world so we could happily scoop things up into our hands to study them.  That’s going to be a learning curve here.  Our favourite was the dor beetle, a type of dung beetle with a matt black upper carapace but a beautiful, metallic underside the colours of petrol in a puddle.  Despite the fact they were abundant so we were always likely to find them on any walk, we were always happy to encounter them.  There were also a plethora of dragonfly species where we lived and we loved to see them darting around, dashes of bright colour, in the warmer months.  As well as wild insects, for a period we also had pet cockroaches.  Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches to be precise.  Having them in a tank was a bit like having fish: they don’t cuddle on your lap and you don’t have to take them for a walk (bonus!) but studying them can be fascinating and almost meditative.  I got them used to being handled so they were more interactive.  You can’t pick up a fish and stroke it.  So my boys are very much “slugs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails” boys and I’m their bug lovin’ momma.  This trip was, therefore, very much our cup of tea.

My husband, on the other hand, has a bit of a love-hate relationship with spiders.  If he happens upon one unexpectedly or if one suddenly scuttles across the floor late at night, he has been known to release a piercing scream.  And he swears one wolf spider tried to attack him with its “fangs”.  But the same dread they fill him with has also led him to be fascinated by them.  He is always drawn to spider exhibits in any display of captive beasties.

The Insectarium is a funny wee place.  The Insect Museum, it turned out, is housed in the same building as an extermination business.  In fact, the two operations are run by the same people.  So in the same shop where one buys tickets to go and marvel at the wonders of insect and arachnid life, there is also someone advising how to search and destroy insects who are running amuck in houses.  Love and hate.  Diversification in a business is a good idea, of course, but that’s quite some mixed message.



The first floor of the Insectarium is devoted mainly to specimens of insects.  The walls are lined with butterflies in frames and there are glass cabinets filled with cases of bugs and spiders.  It reminded me of a Victorian curiosity cabinet or the dusty sections of an old museum.  One of my favourite museums is the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.  It had a remodel a few years ago but when I was little it was pretty much arranged as it had been for centuries and on one of the top floors there was a musty room filled with wooden cabinets, each covered by a leather flap which, when raised, revealed hundreds of insects, butterflies and arachnids pinned in serried rows.  The Insectarium was like a hobbyist’s version of the same.  

The boys loved seeing the glow-in-the-dark scorpions under the ultraviolet light, a hive full of live bees that was a glass panel so that they could see them buzzing around the hexagonal cells and a display set up like a kitchen with live cockroaches milling around.  They also got to vote for their favourite baby insect.  Three of them were loyal to our former pets and voted for the baby roach but the littlest Pict voted for the baby leaf insect.






The upper floor, however, was the main event: tanks upon tanks filled with live beasties.  Highlights were the Black Widow Spider, the Goliath Tarantula, the chubby scorpions and – for me at least – the variety of cockroach species.  We were also amused by a tank full of decorated shells, painted in bright colours, for the hermit crabs to choose from.  Pimp my shell.  The boys and I also got to hold various insects including a fancy Leaf Insect and a beetle that feigns death, on its back, legs up the air and everything, as a defence strategy.







We had a fun day.  Everyone enjoyed the trip: the boys and I got to indulge our love of seeing and handling insects but in a way that is safer than just shoving our hands into someone leaf mulch in the wild – at least until such time as we have learned to identify venomous bugs – and my husband was excited to see a Black Widow, which he loves.  And hates.  And for my next insect pet, I would like a Glorious Beetle.