Is it possible that a museum deep in the Dutch countryside that many Dutch families have never even heard of, can really be the the best children’s museum in the world?
Well, according to the European Museum Academy – yes. At a ceremony in Austria last year, the jury called it:
…an inspiring place, taking a potentially dry topic and converting it into something direct, sociable and fun.
Naturally we had to decide for ourselves, so we headed off to Herwijnen deep, DEEP in the Dutch countryside to find out more about a fort dedicated to maps and navigation.
If you’re short on time, let me cut to the chase. It was GREAT, we absolutely loved it, and getting in free with our Museum Cards was a bonus. But if you’ve got time to spare, let me tell you a bit more, it’s worth sticking around…
Having driven cross country and off-grid for what seemed like ages, our kids were absolutely certain we were lost. Ironic given we were heading to a museum about navigation. Suddenly, on a little knoll, surrounded by fields we saw Geofort’s adventure playground, and there was no doubt we had arrived.
It is immediately apparent that this thrilling island fort has serious atmosphere. Dating back hundreds of years, the fort forms part of The Nieuwe Hollandse Waterlinie (New Dutch Waterline) which was a military line of defence. The line was established as a protective ring around the Dutch cities of Muiden, Utrecht, Vreeswijk and Gorinchem and was the main Dutch defence line from 1815 until 1940.
In 2005 the fort was turned into a museum of cartography and navigation and the transformation is wonderful. Keeping its original bunkers and tunnels was a no brainer, but introducing a glass atrium, wildflowers and landscaping has massively enhanced the site.
Once inside the museum, the first thing many people do is download the app. This will translate all the signs into English, although truth be told, explanations are not really needed, and we found that serendipitous discovery was part of the fun.
There are probably twice as many bunkers and activities outside than inside, so on a day of typical multifarious Dutch weather, we headed straight out the back before the heavens opened.
There we found an array of delights. An island reachable only by raft, showing the sea level across the country; a small maze perfect for little explorers; a huge maze navigated via smells and sounds; bunkers with adventures of all kinds and even a Minecraft challenge that our 7 year old absolutely loved.
But this is the Netherlands, and free exploration is celebrated just as much as directed activities. So why not climb a huge concrete structure covered in spikes and risk landing on stinging nettles at the bottom? I’ve got no idea what this has to do with fortresses or navigation but it is gloriously Dutch in its anti – Health and Safety approach and needless to say it was one little boys’ dream.
Heading back inside there are rooms packed with features that caught our boys’ imaginations and made it nearly impossible to drag them away. They made compasses, tracked flight simulators, explored tunnels and constructed towers that shook every few minutes from rumbling earthquakes.
Finally hunger managed to do what we couldn’t and they were persuaded to step away, and head back out front to the beautiful cafe, where we discovered the extraordinary adventure playground in full. It would almost have been worth coming for this alone. The boys were off in a second, climbing, balancing, building and exploring.
And as the explorers got braver and investigated further they made a thrilling discovery – a series of wooden slabs ready to be arranged into a little maze. Our boys LOVED getting busy with this and quickly set to work. Other children had their own plans and inevitably there were stand offs and re-assembly but the negotiation was all part of the fun and the escapade proved utterly compelling and addictive for the minis.
And best of all, whilst they adventured, we sat and enjoyed the glorious cafe terrace, and its menu of map-shaped rolls and pancakes and wholesome local food.
It was not surprisingly one of the hardest museums to leave.
So, is it the world’s best children’s museum?
In my opinion the label is somewhat unfair. It sets it up to disappoint rather than allow visitors to delight in what feels like an authentic hidden gem. Why label it? Geofort is fantastic, go, discover it and enjoy navigating its wonders.