Visions of a nation's eccentricity

Click to follow
The Independent Online
In the north of Scotland, the Wick Museum is responsible for one of the oddest displays in the United Kingdom. It exhibits jetsam washed up on the beach.

In Gloucester, Robert Opie's Museum of Advertising and Packaging contains a quarter of a million items, from cornflake boxes to advertising labels.

Those two homes of scholarship are still going strong. Sadly, the Bakelite Museum - a collection of old telephones and toilet seats made out of bakelite - is no longer. The living tribute to early plastic, which sculptor Patrick Cook kept in his flat at Peckham, south London, has closed. The owners of the block of flats terminated the lease.

Britain thrives on independent museums, reflections of their owners' obsessions. They come and go with such speed that trying to collate reliable statistics becomes impossible.

Simon Tait, author of Palaces of Discovery - The Changing World Of Britain's Museums, says: "Some of it is wonderful stuff, some of it is instantly forgettable; but these museums add to Britain's eccentricity."

Where small can be wacky, big is often now interactive. The Natural History Museum in London teaches its young and not-so-young visitors about geology through its new Earth Galleries, opened last year. Visitors can take an escalator through the centre of the earth, witness a "live" earthquake monitoring station, step inside the Earthquake Experience and walk beneath a volcano.

The Earth Galleries are one of the latest and most high-profile examples of "interactive experiences". A search through the latest Museums and Galleries 1997 guide produced by the national tourist boards shows that the Natural History Museum is not alone. The Imperial War Museum gives the sounds and smells of the Blitz; the Jorvik Viking Centre in York an electronic car ride through a "time tunnel" on to a Viking street; Snibston Discovery Park in Leicestershire allows children to walk through a tornado; Portsmouth Historic Dockyard gives children hands-on naval experience of tying knots, using pulleys and signalling in semaphore. At the Science Museum in London a working radio station enables older children to present and record their own programmes. And at Eureka!, in Halifax, an exhibit called Me and My Body allows children to walk inside a giant mouth and wobble a loose tooth.

At the Natural History Museum, Giles Clark, who de- signed the Earth Galleries Exhibition, says: "I don't use interactive exhibits for fun, although that's a bonus. I use them because they're the most effective educational tool."