A visit to Manchester's Urbis museum offers a unique perspective on city life and an exciting way in to urban studies. David Bocking reports.
The children in the Urbis glass elevator hovering over Manchester might be wearing fewer baseball caps than the average group of 12-year-olds, and slightly wider-eyed expressions, but otherwise they're similar to most pupils in their pre-teens. "And that's where Ryan Giggs is supposed to have an apartment," says a guide, pointing to one of the high-rise residences that are gradually replacing mill chimneys as the main features of the city's skyline. It's all very exciting for the Year 7 pupils from St Louis Catholic Middle School - but then they are from Bury St Edmunds.
"Life in Bury is very, very slow and most of the children have no idea of how a city buzzes," explains teacher Diane Kennedy. She's brought them to Manchester's museum of urban life where students from a Suffolk market town - or from the suburb of Moss Side - can learn what it's like to live in one of the world's major cities.
Urbis, which opened a year ago, was built on a car park close to the site of the 1996 IRA bomb attack on Manchester's Arndale Centre. No one was killed, but the city was rocked to its foundations. The planners of Urbis took care to include the story of how the damage left by the terrorist bomb became a spur for Manchester's urban renewal.
Geography, along with citizenship and history, is one of the key curricular themes of Urbis, which offers workshops and guided tours for secondary and older primary students, covering population, migration, settlement, transport and pollution.
Further aspects of physical and human geography can be picked up in the museum's displays focusing on case studies of Paris, Sao Paulo, Los Angeles, Singapore, Tokyo and, of course, Manchester.
The students from St Louis School came to Manchester on an extended trip around the city's art galleries and museums, but Manchester itself was making as big an impression as its public buildings, which is very much the aim of Urbis.
The museum of cities is carefully sited in Manchester's central business district and, as Urbis's education officer Charlotte Maudsley explains, the skateboarder, police officer, businesswoman and family walking through the regenerated Millennium Quarter outside the museum are a real-life representation of the themes within.
Charlotte Maudsley was a geography teacher herself before taking the job at Urbis. "Studying subjects like population and migration in GCSE geography can be a bit boring at school, but at Urbis there's exciting interactive audiovisual stuff going on, and I really believe when a child has been in here they're going to go away with more information than they would if they had read it in a textbook," she says.
Urbis's actor-led geographical tours can be adapted for different age groups and for each school's requirements. They look at the positive and negative aspects of city life, and perceptions of cities from the viewpoints of their inhabitants.
Workshops, which usually follow on from the tours, look at population, environmental problems, physical geography and migration, economics and regeneration. Teachers can make a free visit before bringing their pupils.
Post-16 students are offered a work pack on demography, regeneration, crime, gentrification and segregation, or workshops based on the films City of God (set in the slums of Rio De Janeiro) or Dirty Pretty Things (set among illegal immigrants in London).
A visit to the Urbis exhibitions begins in the glass elevator, which glides up a steep incline to the arrival area, where noisy video impressions of city life blast out from the walls and ceiling of a darkened room. From there, visitors explore on their own or follow the actors on their selected guided tour.
Urbis uses pictures and text as much as electronics to tell its stories of urban life. Children come away with memories full of sound bites: 37 per cent of New Yorkers never marry; a third of the inhabitants of Manchester are of Irish descent; an average UK citizen is filmed by security cameras 300 times every day; life expectancy is 10 years longer in Paris than in Sao Paulo, and three years shorter in Manchester than Los Angeles.
People come to Urbis from all over the world and from the estates of inner-city Manchester, says Charlotte Maudsley. "They come into a fantastic city centre first of all, then they come into a beautiful building, and look at all these exhibits that spark off enthusiasm and ideas that make them think 'Wow, gosh, I didn't know that'. Urbis might not give them the full picture but it will give them that spark."
"It's accessible and I do think it works," says St Louis School teacher Diane Kennedy. "These children are from a visual generation - a flash, press-button, video-game generation, but Urbis sneakily gets them to read and ask questions.
"If you're not careful, geography is a 'colouring in' subject," she adds.
"You can easily kill the subject when it's just in a book, but when geography is interactive, it's interesting."
The Year 7 pupils from Bury St Edmunds have picked up on plenty of the Urbis facts and figures but their experience of the museum is inextricably linked to their experience of urban trams, footballer Ryan Giggs and television's Cold Feet. "When you're in a classroom, a teacher can explain things but when you go there you get a feeling of what it's actually like," says 12-year-old Chris Richardson."
Eleven-year-old Kevin Agius looks thoughtful after a morning among the bright lights and noise of Urbis. "I like Manchester, but I'm not sure what I would think if I lived here," he says."
Pre-booked school parties and guided tours are free. Workshops pound;2.
Geography study packs for post-16 students pound;1 and movie workshops pound;6 per student, which includes film viewings. Contact Urbis education team: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Tel: 0161 605 8205 www.urbis.org.uk