A weird and wonderful world

Some museums you have to tiptoe around. Raymond Ross visits one which clanks, bangs, whistles and whirrs non-stop
3rd October 2008, 1:00am


A weird and wonderful world


Any child walking into the newly-refurbished main hall at Summerlee Museum of Industrial Life, in Coatbridge, might be forgiven for imagining they've just entered a weird and wonderful world not a million miles from Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory.

Being confronted with all sorts of strange machinery, in gigantic proportion, would awaken any youngster's curiosity. It is easy to imagine yourself in a different world, because that's exactly where you are: the world of Scotland's mighty industrial past.

But it's not only what you see. It's what you hear. This is a working museum which clanks and bangs, which grinds, whirrs and whistles non-stop. It proudly declaims itself "Scotland's noisiest museum", a description you could hardly argue with, above the din of the spade forge which once made millions of shovels for the local mines, brick and iron works; the churning of the huge colliery winding engine which once lowered thousands of men into the bowels of the Cardowan coal mine; and the roar of a Victorian blast furnace which helped produce the pig-iron on which Coatbridge ("Iron Town") was built.

Re-opened last week, after a two-year closure for a Pounds 9 million major refurbishment, Summerlee is geared up for the many school parties, mostly primary, which are already booking in to experience the life, labouring and living conditions of industrial Scotland.

"Experience is the key to what we offer here at Summerlee," says Carol Ettershank, North Lanarkshire Council's museums and heritage manager. "It is very much about engaging with real objects, genuine industrial artefacts, through hands-on sessions, which makes for a different learning experience," she says.

The re-development of the museum, originally opened in 1987, has seen the creation of a new entrance for the main exhibition hall (including cafe, shop and toilets); the establishment of an education suite; the refurbishment of conservation workshops and new meeting and general activity spaces for conferences and events.

Free all-day visits for primary schools include a choice of three two-hour workshops: "When Gran was a Girl", "What We Wear: Exploring Materials" and "World War II", with opportunities for dressing up in period costumes, becoming a spy for the day, learning how to weave, and trying your hand with a "gird and cleik" or a "whup and peerie".

Day visits also include the chance to ride on a tram: a 1904 Lanarkshire, open-topped double-decker or a 1926 Glasgow single-decker. Until the new Edinburgh tram system gets under way, Summerlee will operate the only electric tram system in Scotland, including a classic tram imported from Dusseldorf, specially adapted for people with physical disabilities.

The trams can take you to a specially-constructed drift-mine, a coal-mine which you can walk into through an "adit" (tunnel), rather than descend in a "cage". Here, you can experience the cramped working conditions of the miners before visiting their houses, the "miners' rows" whose interiors reflect life in the 1910s, 1940s and 1960s.

If walking, keep your eyes and ears open for giant steam rollers which may be trundling around the 22-acre Summerlee site which is itself a scheduled ancient monument. The museum was built among the foundations of the Summerlee Iron Works which were "in blast" for a century, from the 1830s to 1930s, and employed some 3,000 men.

Eventually, you come up against a brick wall, a litany to industrial endeavour which includes the names of Auchinlea, Bonnybridge, Carfin, Darngaville, Etna, Glenboig, Larkhall, Motherwell and Summerlee. These are names you will find in older buildings all over Scotland and across the world.

"No matter where you go in the world, you'll find things large and small, made from Scottish iron, steel and bricks," says Ms Ettershank. "And this is what Summerlee is: a celebration and commem- oration of Scotland's leading role in the industrial world. A landmark heritage facility for the 21st century."

You can't argue with that - and not just because of the noise of the machinery - but because of what Summerlee offers.

And before leaving, any child worth his sugar will surely want to see the confectionery machines of the late-lamented King's of Wishaw, makers of "Oddfellows". But, bearing in mind healthy eating and all that, the visit to the Summerlee sweet factory also entails a visit next door to an old- time dentist's.

Just a wee painful reminder. Now, that really is Scottish.


"When Gran was a girl"

Early years

Handling session using domestic objects 1900-1950s (wash tubs, boards, mangles), including a pretend food shop using scales and old money. Children can dress up in old-fashioned aprons, mop caps, waistcoats and caps, as well as dirndl skirts and Teddy Boy jackets, learn how to play traditional games and dance the Twist.

"What we wear: exploring materials"


The weaving process "from sheep to shawl". Weaver-in-residence will explain history from hand looms through the industrial revolution to today. Children can try weaving techniques from carding and hand-spinning to weaving prepared wool, and make bookmarks to take home.

"World War II"


Looking at life on the "Home Front" - evacuation, shelters, rationing and make-do-and-mend. Children imagine themselves as evacuees and write a letter home. In the Anderson Shelter they hear stories about the impact of war on people's lives, can handle objects and dress up.

T: 01236 638460


You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Register for free to read more

You can read two more articles on Tes for free this month if you register using the button below.

Alternatively, you can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

Already registered? Log in

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Subscribe to read more

You can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters