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Keep in touch with a feel for the past

Learn about the Highlands at amuseum that makes visitors do all the work, says Edith Murray.

A hands-on history presentation is up and running at a pound;100,000 Discovery Centre in Inverness. The free facility at Inverness Museum and Art Gallery, called "Hands on the Highlands", is the only one of its kind outside the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

And hands on it is. Visitors have to interact with the displays and get involved in ways nottraditionally associated with museum visits.

The birth of the centre was some time coming. It was "a gleam in the museum's eye" for almost a decade, says curator Catharine Niven. The new diy-style facility is a much moreversatile way to display the museum's collections.

"Visitors are actively encouraged to roll up their sleeves and get to work on uncovering a wide variety of artefacts. They learn for themselves the what, why and when of human and naturalhistory in the Highlands," says Ms Niven.

Set on the ground floor of the museum, the Discovery Centre is so different from the normal museum experience that first-time visitors could be startled.

The new space looks a little like a trendy nursery school. The floor is covered in bright linoleum and there are 10 brightly painted chests of drawers against the walls. Not one glass case can be seen. Where, you wonder, is all the "stuff"? It turns out to be in drawers. They are individual discovery stations with different themes. These include Place and People, Croft Living, Town Life, Travel and Trade and Farming. A notice on top of each chest invites you to: "Please open the drawers."

Many objects can be handled, more fragile ones are behind perspex. None are labelled. If you don't know what those polished stones were used for, you need to consult the Croft Living folder. Each station has an activity drawer which, for Croft Living, contains butter pats and a recipe for making butter at home in the 21st century, without a churn.

The Discovery Centre is also furnished with a large work table, a simple corn grinder, several computers, a dressing-up box and a video macroscope that magnifies objects from the drawer. A wardrobe of replica costumes and an archaeology sandpit can be booked by schools and other groups.

The headteacher of Raigmore primary school, Moira Leslie, says: "We took two children from each class along to the opening and they all wanted to know when they could come back again for a proper visit."

Raigmore primary was involved in the development of the centre from a very early stage, as the museum staff were determined to get it right for teachers and pupils.

"It was a real partnership," says Mrs Leslie.

Hands on the Highlands Discovery Centre, Inverness Museum and Art Gallery, Castle Wynd, Inverness IV2 3ED.Tel: 01463 237114. Open: Monday to Saturday, 10am-4.30pm. School visits free but must book in advance. For schools loan service and informationeducational packs contact Amanda Truscott or Chris Elsey.

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