THIS MORNING, 380 Cubs - 379 boys and one girl - will wake up in sleeping-bags tucked between space rockets and steam engines on the gallery floors of the Science Museum in London. Last night they learned about hot-air balloons and built one. Today's subject is electricity.
This is no elaborate "bob- a-job" ritual but part of the museum's Science Nights, in which children camp overnight on the premises and, through a series of demonstrations, exercises and films, learn the rudiments of science.
The Science Museum is one of Britain's booming museums. In 1850 there were just 60 of them but in the past 30 years numbers have nearly trebled from 870 to about 2,500.
According to the Museums and Galleries Commission - the museum equivalent of the Arts Council - a new or refurbished building opens every fortnight.
Peter Longman, director of the commission, believes this rise owes much to Britain's squirrel-like hoarding of the past. "We like to collect things and preserve them," he said. "Local people have a sense of pride in their town's history. I've seen museums open and half their collection walk in off the street after the first week."
While the South Kensington complex of the Victoria & Albert, Science, Natural History and Geology museums still dominates the field, it is the growth of independent, specialist museums which has been remarkable in recent years.
Virtually every conceivable passion, from lawnmowers to stained-glass windows, now has a museum dedicated to it. There is a Laurel and Hardy Museum in Ulverston, Cumbria; the Fan Museum in Greenwich, south-east London, has proved immensely popular since its opening three years ago; and a "Draining the Fens" exhibition at Pinchbeck, near Spalding, Lincolnshire, is drawing the crowds.
But Mr Longman also believes that the nation has become much more sophisticated culturally, thanks mainly to expanding media coverage of the arts. "Take the Picasso exhibition at the Tate. They were queuing round the corner after the season of programmes on television. Now that wouldn't have happened five years ago."
With competition from such other leisure attractions as Alton Towers and the Chessington World of Adventures, museums and galleries have also had to be more aggressive in efforts to attract visitors. That most venerable of institutions, the V&A, led the way with its much-criticised advertising slogan "The V&A - an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached", but the populist approach appears to have worked. …