Aberdeen's impressive new maritime museum has generated a tidal wave of interest, reports Judy Mackie
Imagine you're living 100 years ago and you're going on a journey to Australia. How would you get there? How long would it take? What would you take with you?" In the first five seconds of her 40-minute workshop, museum education officer Ann Scott has reeled in her audience of six-year olds hook, line and sinker.
Their enchantment could be attributed to the fact that, as a former teacher, she is used to capturing young imaginations with colourful tales; but it also has much to do with the special surroundings she works in - Aberdeen's magnificent new Maritime Museum, which has whipped up a storm of excitement in, and far beyond, the city by the grey North Sea.
The Pounds 4 million, four-storey museum, which welcomed more than 7,000 visitors of all ages in the first week it was open, was jointly funded by Aberdeen City Council and Grampian Enterprise, and sponsored by a range of local businesses and organisations. It is housed in three unusual buildings, in the ancient, cobbled Shiprow (scene of many a witch ducking in the 1500s).
The first of these, the 16th-century Provost Ross's House, is home to the original Maritime Museum, and its period rooms and staircases are the ideal setting for photographs, paintings, memorabilia and models depicting the city's illustrious fishing and shipbuilding heritage.
Among the attractions are the Shipbuilder's Drawing Office, complete with brass and wooden instruments and original charts, and the Thermopylae Room, a tribute to Aberdeen's most famous clipper, which holds a model of the ship carved by one of her captains, part of a masthead, and rigging.
At the other end of the row is the 19th-century Trinity Congregational Church, whose magnificent carved and painted ceiling has been restored. It houses the original eight-metre-high clockwork mechanism and revolving lens of Rattray Head lighthouse (1894-1983), atmospherically placed alongside a giant video projection of crashing waves and screaming sea birds, and the Duthie Deck House, an authentic 19th-century teak steamship deck house that was used as a garden shed until its true identity was discovered in 1984.
Linking both historic buildings is a giant glass and steel showcase, which offers superb views of the busy harbour and is tipped to be the hospitality hot spot when the Cutty Sark Tall Ships Race comes to town in July. Dominating the "Link'' is the museum's centrepiece - a breathtaking eight-and-a-half-metre scale model of the Murchison North Sea oil platform, faithfully constructed using the original Conoco engineering model.
The three floors built around it focus on various offshore and marine environmental themes and include: a real, van-sized, remote-operated vehicle, used for underwater maintenance and repair; an oil platform accommodation cabin, which is especially popular with the families of offshore employees who want to know where dad or mum live when they're working; a reconstruction of a drill floor, complete with model roustabouts; and an authentic offshore platform control room, equipped with multimedia touchscreens which replicate the drilling and production activities of a real offshore installation.
"The museum is a very complicated place for young children, and so it's important that its exhibits and themes are interpreted in a way they can easily relate to," explains Ann Scott. "As most of the five themes - shipbuilding, the oil industry, fishing, the harbour and the North Sea itself - have traditionally masculine connotations, I have tried to make them accessible to all children by focusing on their social aspects, exploring what life would have been like, or is like today, for the communities living and working in these environments."
The children of Skene Square Primary watch enthralled, as she reveals the tissue-wrapped treasures which bring to life the voyage of a Victorian boy on his way to the New World. They see how he would have passed the 80-day journey playing with building blocks or wooden puzzles, or poring over problems in a book of sums.
It forms part of a series of workshops devised by Ann Scott. Each has strong links with the Scottish 5-14 curriculum, focusing on topics relating to local studies: people in the past, people in society, technology and science.
Other workshops include: "The Oil Rig Worker's Lunch", a pastiche of the popular children's book, The Lighthouse Keeper's Lunch, which looks at life on an oil production platform. This reveals how one particular worker receives his lunch from the beach; "Message in a Bottle", an environmental session for eight to nine-year-olds, has classes sorting natural and manufactured items found on the beach, and uses museum displays to explain the products of the North Sea, the damage being done to the sea, and ways in which the marine environment can be conserved; and "Looking for Clues - Who was this Man?", in which nine to 11-year-olds examine extracts from the Victorian diary of voyager William Mayes, deciding which artefacts he would have used in his travels aboard a clipper.
The "Going on a Journey" workshop for nursery and reception classes, held in the auditorium, sets the scene for a tour of the museum proper. The children, armed with activity sheets, are charged with locating the real-life versions of illustrated exhibits. All are eager to be first to spot the curious curly-tailed sea creature on a ship's funnel and discover which part of it is missing in the drawing.
Having spent an hour wandering around the exhibits, the children of Skene Square Primary race back to the auditorium to eat their packed lunches on a giant sailcloth. According to their teacher, Jill Watson, the visit has been a great success.
"I was a little concerned that the museum would be too complicated for the pupils, but Ann has pitched it at just the right level, with the workshop and activity sheets," she says. "The children have thoroughly enjoyed themselves, and today's theme fits in very well with a project we're doing on people who lived long ago."
Aberdeen Maritime Museum, Shiprow, Aberdeen AB11 5BY is open Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm, Sunday 11am-5pm, admission free. Schools information packs are available from Ann Scott, tel 01224 337710