A not-so-distant past is brought back to life

Two museums in the Midlands are teaching children about their industrial heritage in a fun, hands-on way
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The Independent Online

The big heavy industries, including coal mining and steel manufacturing, that gave the Black Country its name are long gone. And without the Black Country Living Museum, in Dudley, West Midlands, those industries might be forgotten, and their legacy lost to new generations.

The big heavy industries, including coal mining and steel manufacturing, that gave the Black Country its name are long gone. And without the Black Country Living Museum, in Dudley, West Midlands, those industries might be forgotten, and their legacy lost to new generations.

Their grandparents might have mined coal, but many Black Country children today are totally disconnected from the fossil fuel. "Often, they have never seen a piece of coal before they visit the museum," says Emma Middleton, the museum's marketing manager.

The museum is set in 26 acres in the shadow of Dudley Castle, and centres on a group of 19th- and 20th-century buildings moved, brick by brick, to the site from across the region. Children - and adults - are encouraged by guides in period costume to experience life as it was so recently, and yet so very differently, lived. Children can join in lessons in the old-fashioned school (where they recite multiplication tables, and hold out their hands for their nails to be inspected); go down a coal mine; travel on a tram; watch sweets and bread being made; and view a silent movie in the1920s cinema. Fish and chips are on sale from an old-world chippie with an open range, and adults can even have a pint in the 1920s pub

"It's the costumed characters that bring the buildings to life," says Middleton. "And while you learn here, this is a museum where you can have fun, too."

Offering children the chance to live for a day like their grandparents or great-grandparents did, has proved a winner - the museum attracts 250,000 visitors a year and 80,000 children in school parties, and is about to start redevelopment that will double its size.

The museum also brings the generations together. "You can hear grandparents reminiscing with their grandchildren as they go round," says Middleton, who argues that whatever is said about the "DVD generation", today's children have not lost their imaginations, or their desire to make-believe.

Cathy Shingler, who dresses up in period costume for school parties visiting the Gladstone Pottery Museum in Stoke-on-Trent - agrees. The Museum centres on the only remaining intact pottery factory from the Victorian era, when coal-burning bottle-ovens produced the finest bone china in the world

Shingler wants this generation to know about the past. And what children love - and what her museum offers - in the learning process is hands-on experience, she says. It's actually "doing it" that stirs young imaginations. "I've just been playing a pottery painter suffering from lead poisoning from the paint, and there were tears in some eyes," she says.

The children can also experience painting their own pots wearing traditional smocks. "They take the role-playing very seriously," says Shingler. When imaginations are fired, few gimmicks seem to be required.

Black Country Living Museum, Dudley ( www.bclm.co.uk); Gladstone Pottery Museum, Stoke-on-Trent ( www2002.stoke.gov.uk/museums/gladstone)

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