Backward look to the future

5th March 1999 at 00:00
Manchester is proud of its industrial heritage. Now the city museum hasan even sharper technological edge. Michael Prestage reports

An exhibition that looks at the history as well as the future of leading-edge technologies has become the second most popular feature of the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester. (The favourite attraction of the museum, which celebrates Manchester's role as a big industrial city, is the reconstruction of a Victorian sewer, complete with authentic odours).

The Futures Gallery exhibition was launched last summer as part of the Digital celebrations to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the development of "The Baby", the world's first stored program computer, and it has given the museum, which was opened 15 years ago, an opportunity to focus on the scientific endeavour and technological advances taking place locally.

Patrick Greene, the museum director, says: "Communications are at the heart of any industrial city and Manchester illustrates that very well. The new gallery provides a valuable starting point to look at the transforming affect of communications on the city."

Housed in the 1830 Warehouse, the oldest railway building in the world, the exhibition focuses on periods in history that experienced global technological change including the railway in 1830 and the arrival in the 1880s of the telephone in Manchester.

The 1948 section shows the impact of computers. "The Baby" has been recreated and is central to this part of the exhibition. Visitors can also see archive material about the original.

Part of the gallery allowshands-on experience with someof the latest technology. Of particular interest to schools is the Digital Access Centre, where computers have the latest software, access to the Internet and video-conferencing facilities.

Stewart Ballantyne, headteacher of Christchurch CE Primary School in Eccles, sees Futures as a valuable resource for supporting the curriculum and offering improved facilities in information technology work. His pupils were busy designing Web pages.

The technology available also includes the MistVR training system, which shows how Manchester Royal Infirmary and Virtual Presence have developed virtual reality to help train doctors in keyhole surgery techniques. Visitors are able to have a go at being a surgeon using the system themselves. A video of an operation shows how the training is put into practice.

A virtual map of Manchester, developed at the University of Manchester's geography department with help from the city council and Ordnance Survey, allows visitors to input any city centre address and find lots of detailed information.

An interactive video invites visitors to record their own visions of the future, which will be added to contributions from a range of people and broadcast on large screens around the gallery.

Schools can choose between two types of museum visit, says Alison Hulse, the education officer. They can organise their own tour of whichever of the 15 galleries are appropriate. The museum will provide advice on which galleries are most suitable for particular topics and material relevant to curriculum needs, but it is teachers who structure the visit.

Or, the museum will provide workshops linked to individual galleries, based in classrooms at the museum. There are the resources for four lessons to take place at any one time and four time slots in a day.

The Digital Access Centre is seen as particularly important for schools, giving primary schools access to technology not normally available to them.

Ms Hulse says: "There are projects that involve children spending half the time in one of the other galleries and then half the time in Futures. They may be producing newspapers about their visit or digitally creating a Victorian scene."

* The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, Liverpool Road, Castlefield, Manchester M3 4FP.

For the education service , telephone 0161 833 0027; fax 0161 832 1511. The museum runs a membership scheme for schools. Teachers are admitted free to pre-plan visits.

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