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Beastly builders;Arts

Glasgow 1999 has been bombarding the press all year with notices of exhibitions, lectures and photo-opportunities to celebrate its year as the UK city of architecture, but the Hunterian Museum took the biscuit with last month's press release announcing its contribution - The Animal Construction Company.

What read like an amusing, if tenuous, link, turns out to be a genuinely fascinating complement to the celebrations of architects such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Aalvar Alto.

Whether you're interested in advanced architecture or elementary environmental studies, this show, which runs until August 21, will open your eyes and your mind. Ants, spiders, termites, wasps, birds - the scale of home-building is minute by comparison with the mile-high visions of Frank Lloyd Wright, but the carefully lit boxes containing the delicate nests and burrows of these industrious little creatures display weaving and spinning skills to match those of any human artist.

Wood, wool, silk, mud - even saliva - are woven together with a degree of purpose remarkable to anyone with little knowledge of the animal world. We're familiar by now with Greek Thomson terraces and Mackintosh churches, but how many of us have had the chance to study the saliva nest of the edible-nest swiftlet or the burrow system of the mud shrimp?

Young children who delight in bugs and insects will savour this exhibition, and enjoy playing the interactive termite program. They can try their hand at various nest-building techniques, with paper straws and bits of wood, then test their strength by placing the supplied eggs in the nest - and discover how much more skilled are the birds.

Unfortunately when we visited, the display case of live tropical orb spiders weaving their webs - a particular attraction - was dark and inactive, cryptically "closed due to unforeseen circumstances". Their food supply of crickets was still crawling around the case, but the predators themselves had died, as had the wasps in another case.

"It's a case of never work with animals and children," says Maggie Reilly of the Hunterian Museum. "We're hoping to find another spider that will be more reliable, and we may bring in the harvest mice from the zoology museum in the hope that they'll build their lovely woven grass ball nests." Children can still watch the bubble nesting fish building the rafts of saliva bubbles into which they lay their eggs.

Teachers' packs on spiders' webs, bird nests and badgers' burrows are available, as are worksheets for visiting school groups. Ninety schools in the Glasgow area are taking part in a project that will culminate in a special event in June. A beautifully illustrated and information-packed little book, The Animal Construction Company, is also available, price pound;5 from the Hunterian, tel: 0141 330 4221.

Gillian Macdonald

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