A chance to try a toga on for size

16th May 1997 at 01:00
Dover's White Cliffs Experience has re-opened its doors after a Pounds 1 million winter revamp. Established by Dover District Council in 1991 for Pounds 14 million, market feedback - especially from schools - revealed it had become a little stale.

The interactive museum has now been split into two distinct parts which portray Dover's past: "Roman Encounters" - which has been totally redesigned in the facelift - and "Our Finest Hours".

The tedious information panels and time-consuming videos have gone, replaced by enthusiastic actors - with the opportunity to learn by becoming part of the "experience".

Now visitors "land" on the beach in 55AD with the invasion force and amble down a Roman street, with houses, shops and an apothecary. From the quayside, you can operate a crane or perhaps try your hand at rowing as a galley slave.

Was Roman chainmail uncomfortable? Try it on and see. How did they build their famous roads? Discover for yourself using the road-building kit. What were togas made of? Ask the street vendor selling cloth in the forum and then try one for size. And for that final touch of authenticity, part of Dover's Roman ruins are cleverly incorporated into the setting.

Everywhere the emphasis is on "doing" and interactivity. It's a slick operation and impossible not to become involved in something. Neither a museum nor a display, this is something you live.

In "Our Finest Hours", pupils again become part of the experience, boarding a 1920s ferry where brief films of Britain at sea are shown through its "windows". An usherette collects you from here and takes you into a 1940s theatre where a crab, seagull and talking wireless come to life in a splendid display of animatronics as they ponder Dover's finest hour in an end-of-the-pier show.

At its conclusion, an all-clear siren sounds and an ARP warden leads you into a 1940s Dover street. Tin hats, wooden shorings, sandbags. Who needs virtual reality? A baker's shop - you can even smell the freshly baked bread - pub, newsagent and tobacconist have all been painstakingly recreated. Then the sirens sound again and the warden accompanies you to the safety of an air-raid shelter. This is a spine-tingling, emotionally charged moment with an electric impression of wartime Britain.

Free talks and artefact-handling sessions on each theme are also offered. These are usually led by Kim Norton, the education officer. A range of education resource packs with preparatory notes and photocopiable worksheets are available by post, while free familiarisation visits are arranged for teachers.

Chris Fautley Details: The Education Officer, The White Cliffs Experience, Market Square, Dover, Kent CT16 1PB. Tel: 01304 210101. Admission rates: Pounds 2.50 per pupil for either "Roman Encounters" or "Our Finest Hours". Combined entry for both, Pounds 3 per pupil. All entry tickets include free admission to the adjacent Dover Museum. Open: 10am to 5pm summer, 10am to 4pm winter. Education resource packs: Roman Dover Pounds 5, Dover and The Second World War Pounds 3.

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