A unique way of life

12th September 2003 at 01:00

The Museum of the Broads

The Staithe, Stalham, Norfolk NR12 9DA

Admission from 50p per child; adults pound;2

Tel: 01692 581 681


A Norfolk museum explores traditional ways of living and working on the Broads. Penny Cottee reports

You may be surprised to learn that 150 years ago the biggest pest problem on the Norfolk Broads was the large South American rodent, the coypu. Shipped in for fur farms, these wily overgrown water-rats escaped, bred and caused such devastation to the waterways they had to be culled.

The new industry for the region failed almost before it had begun and not one Norfolk coypu coat was made.

The nearly-disastrous coypu experiment is one of the many aspects of life in the 1800s displayed and explained at the Museum of the Broads. "We aim to portray everything from how the Broads were formed and the life of the marshmen and their families, to the vital trade on the waterways and the ecology of the area," says Nick Wright, a director of the museum.

Because the museum covers so much about life on the Broads, schools can link their visits to projects in several subjects. Geography topics for key stage 2 include the effect that people and environment have on each other in the UK. In history, KS2 pupils could consider changes in the area, and for science they could look at the effects of technology on the environment.

Standing on the staithe (jetty area) alongside a dyke and housed in the original storage buildings and boat sheds, the museum is part of the history it illustrates. "This was the centre of trade for the area, where coal and farm produce would be loaded and unloaded from the sailing wherries," says Nick Wright. "The original workers' cottages still surround the staithe and it's easy to picture this as it once was, at the heart of local activity."

The museum is housed in four buildings, each with a separate theme: the Wherry Shed, the Marshman's Building, the Boat Shed, and the Discovery Centre. Pupils can learn about the once-thriving industries of eel catching and mill wrighting, see the boats designed specially for the shallow dykes and waterways, and appreciate the hardships of a marshman's life. "It works well to split the class into four, and then rotate the groups around the buildings," says Rachel Ireson, class teacher at Stalham Middle School near Norwich, who organised a visit earlier this year. "Around eight pupils per group is best, otherwise they can't all see the displays."

The museum is run by volunteers and guides are available to answer questions and help children make the most of their visit. "Rather than structure their time, we prefer pupils to explore the exhibits themselves and to ask about areas that interest them," says Nick Wright.

The museum is deliberately low tech. "There are some interactive displays," he says, "but this is a traditional museum about a traditional way of life, and we don't feel that computers and multimedia displays are necessarily the best way to convey that."

Many school visits finish in the Discovery Centre where pupils can watch a video, try their hand at a variety of knots, paint, or test their knowledge with quiz sheets. While colouring in a picture, nine-year-old Antonia Halls reflects on her visit to the museum. "I've enjoyed it," she says. "It's helped me to understand more about where I live."

Open from Monday to Friday, 11am to 5pm, and during school holiday weekends from Easter to October

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