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London’s First Inflatable Museum Blows Balloons and Minds

The word “immersive’ does no heavy lifting in The Balloon Museum's juggernaut of an exhibition, which invites us to feel, leap into, push and literally lose ourselves within inflatable installations by 20 artists.

The world’s first inflatable art museum has been exploding across Instagram, since the much-hyped launch of its EmotionAir show in December, after attracting more than three million visitors during its stops in New York, Paris, Milan, Rome and Madrid.

We head to review the pop-up's beautiful London venue, Old Billingsgate, where we are greeted by the deliciously surreal sight of enormous, white balloons, exploding from every window.

There are colour coded tracks with matching umbrellas outside for the queues which have snaked around it since its launch. Luckily, we arrive during a weekday morning and stroll straight in.

So begins our multi-sensory adventure through the 70,000 square foot building. Each space is taken over by a different artist’s installation, exploring various emotions, via the medium of air.

We follow arrows up and down stairs, through the vast labyrinth of the former fish market, excited by what we’ll discover in each space. 

Fear is the first emotion explored, via a giant, blue Curly Wurly of an installation. For my three-year-old, this is simply the greatest soft-play of all time, as he crawls through the geometric grid’s squishy maze, while lightning effects flash and stormy sea sounds project around us. It’s called Cube Abyss and is designed for exploration and inspired by the ocean’s depths and fear of the unknown.

While it's not advisable to take drugs in the company of a child, the next installation shows that it could be fun, as we encounter a series of giant, inflatable and pleasingly sinister pink rabbits, deliberately squashed into the building’s vaults. The work - Somehow I don’t Feel Comfortable - explores the Japanese artist’s frustration at her culture’s misogynostic definitions of cuteness.

Some children might be a little alarmed by the Anger installation, although my son enjoyed chatting to Motomichi Nakamura's ingenious, black cannonballs, which have expressive and turbo-miffed expressions projected onto them in a room alive with giant animations of red eyed, shouting heads. 

Other highlights include the Desire installation, featuring beautiful fur and mirror pieces, which double as sonic instruments. A giant disco ball loudly inhales and exhales as it inflates and deflates, causing lights to dance across the vaulted ceilings, while the thickly furred His Dilution piece contorts into different shapes, emitting a deep bass growl.

We are unfamiliar with the “Layered” emotion explored in the Kaleidoscope room, but we do know that this space is a huge hit with kids. Colourful, up-lit tables full of bright inks fill the space, ready for children to squish and transform into different shapes, which are projected within the vaulted arches which stud the room.

We walk down an infinite corridor of giant, rainbow coloured heads (using inflatables and mirrors) and come to a curtain, where a worker beckons my son to what looks like the inside of David Lynch’s brain. It’s The Black Lodge on acid, with huge spheres suspended in swings, which visitors can push, like an enormous Newton’s Cradle. 

The next space is the real showstopper of the show, and the dazzling reels of it which have flooded my Insta feeds do not begin to do it justice. As a mum of two, “beautiful” is never a word I have used to descrive a ball pit, but this was just that.

A never ending ocean of yellow balls beneath a sky of balloons, with a planet sized sphere in the middle, on which various, hypnotic shows are projected, while colour changing orbs slowly bob up and down, accompanied by an extraordinary sound and light show.

Sentience is apparently the emotion explored here, although "demented excitement" is the emotion explored by my son. The deep ball pit swallows him and various children up and the sea of pouting Instagrammers is studded with parents, digging through balls to recover elated children.

We pass under giant legs, intricately adorned with faces of disabled communities Jason Wilsher-Mills has collaborated with, past giant, air-filled tigers and into a kaleidoscopic playground. Here, big and little visitors gleefully push around or run away from enormous, brightly coloured spheres, like a psychedelic Indiana Jones scene.


Next is a room with pumping dance music and lighting, bulging with giant, weebles which remind me why I don’t miss my twenties; followed by giant, Sesame Street-esque faces and eyeballs that my son enjoyed crawling around.

The final Balloon Street section is designed for the Instagram generation, which is clearly the show’s core demographic, alongside families. It’s a fun series of vignettes for photo opportunities, from inflatable lounges, black balloon clouds, and monster tongues to yellow phone boxes exploding with balloons. 

It’s not cheap - blame inflation - but it’s brilliant, bonkers, beautiful and we challenge you to leave without an overinflated grin on your chops.

After buying a luminous doughnut from the show’s Technicolor cafe and passing through the gift shop, squeaking with giant balloon models, we exit into a considerably less colourful and exciting world from the one we’ve leapt about in for the past couple of hours.

1 Old Billingsgate Walk, London EC3R 6DX. Until 18 February. Tickets from £28.10 per person

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