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Beyond the reach

Can museums ever capture the excitement of a sport? Laurence Alster visits one that leaves him less than breathless and below picks out a selection of the front runners.

Think of Henley-on-Thames and you immediately think rowing and regatta. The River and Rowing Museum, which opened in 1998, not only charts the history and technology of rowing as a sport, it also offers a closer acquaintance with the Thames itself, from source to sea. It is a multi-galleried affair and employs music, art and an assortment of river-related exhibits. There is even a tribute to the town.

Many people have been impressed - grown-ups, that is. As well as winning the Museum of the Year title for 1999, the museum has earned much favourable media coverage. Children, on the other hand, are unlikely to be so enraptured.

Not that there's anything wrong with the design of the museum: the five main display areas are brightly lit for close inspection of the exhibits and, at one end of the long and narrow Thames Gallery, large picture windows help create a sense of connection to the stretch of water outside. Equally effective is the lighting in the Rowing Gallery, with patterns that mimic light playing on water, moving continuously along the ceiling.

While assorted contraptions in an introductory area, called The Reach, give good value - the one that shows how it feels to be in a boat is a clear favourite - the Schwarzenbach Rowing Gallery is the best overall. Here, too, some of the exhibits are great fun. Pulling on aluminium levers to a recording of a cox shouting encouragement ("In, out, stay with stroke, let's go ...") shows the importance of rowing in harmony. Efficiency from using a sliding seat is measured electronically when visitors sit in a canoe and tug on a retractable handle. The benefits of a streamlined, as opposed to blunt, hull are demonstrated by propelling both through a water tank.

There is also plenty to please touch-screen enthusiasts, the best option being a fascinating account of the 1987 design, construction and maiden voyage of a full-sized reproduction Greek trireme - complete with three banks of oars and dozens of rowers. Computerised graphics illustrate the difference between rowing and sculling. In the section given over to rowing as a sport, the interactive Hall of Fame video offers informative glimpses of heroes past and present.

If all this is good, the rest could have been so much better. There are small models of old oared lifeboats and whaleboats. What a marvellous opportunity they offer for images of desperate mariners plucked from foaming seas or whaleboats capsized by a swipe of a leviathan's tail. But there are no quotations or illustrations to evoke such fraught moment.

More opportunities are missed in the Thames Gallery. Some features are a delight, in particular three listening booths where visitors can either glide along to tunes that range from The Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset", to the "Eton Boating Song". Or you can wallow in some wonderful Thames-linked prose and verse by Dickens, Conrad and T S Eliot. A touch-screen history of Thames scenes by such artists as Turner, Spencer and Canaletto is enjoyable enough. But you soon reach the shallows.

There are paintings and illustrations of watery-linked miscellenia but few of these are accompanied by any information whatsoever. What are they all doing here? You may well ask.

Just as frustrating is a loop film of London dock life from 1939, that comes with neither commentary nor caption. The section on the Thames barrier lacks a working model to help appreciate form and function of that extraordinary piece of engineering. An 1810 panorama of London stands out from several others as much for the huge blaze shown near one edge of the city as for its general detail and clarity. What is this fire? How did it start and did it spread? There is nothing here to suggest what this image has to tell us about the river.

By contrast, there are answers galore in the Henley Gallery for those in search of a colourful and informed history of the town and its most famous attraction. The atmosphere of past regattas is evoked through photographs, postcards, trophies and badges, while the broader past is recalled through exhibits that mirror change in Henley from prehistoric to modern times.

Though a little too static, the gallery is a positive tumult in comparison with the Treasures Gallery, the smallish space reserved for temporary exhibitions. On my visit, it held a collection of stuffed fish - barbel, pike, perch and so on - in display cases. Other cases contained fishing tackle and there were rods on the wall. The fish looked rather more disenchanted than some of the visitors, but it was a close call.

* The River and Rowing Museum, Mill Meadows, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire RG9 1BF. Tel: 01491 415610. e-mail Open Mondays-Fridays from 10am, Saturdays and Sundays from 10.30am. Summer closing 6pm (Easter-September), winter closing 5pm (October-Easter).

Admission: adults pound;4.95, concessions pound;3.75. Group rates available on request.

Education officer Emily Leach, tel: 01491 415607.

Teachers' resource packs for key stage 2 in geography, science and design and technology are available.

The website gives details of the education centre. There is also an interactive gallery with games for children of all ages. Library and study centre opens by appointment.

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