The fabric of our history

7th March 1997 at 00:00
The first phase of a major new "edutainment" facility has opened in Dundee and could well attract some first-class awards for its excellent displays. Set up by Dundee Heritage Trust, Verdant Works tells the story of the jute industry, which flourished in the city during Victorian times, employing some 50, 000 people in its heyday.

Verdant Works was once a jute mill. A handsome structure, now classed as a Grade A building of national architectural importance, it is situated near the city centre in the heart of one of the earliest urban industrial areas of Scotland.

The industrial heritage centre operates on a guided tour basis. It begins in the turn-of-the-century mill office, "peopled" by life-size figures, where the secretaries are dressed in ankle-length skirts and two male clerks are moaning about having to stand at their desks all day because if they dare to sit down to work, "the women will take over our jobs, just like they took over the weaving".

Next door, with a background of simulated sounds, heat and light, the Indian side of the jute industry, from harvesting to drying, is described in a series of four beautifully detailed mini-tableaux.

Visitors then proceed to a cleverly designed ship's hold (carrying bales of jute to Dundee, of course) where, to the accompaniment of taped seagull noises and with the aid of touch-screen computers, they can learn more about the city which was once known as "Jutopolis".

A further vast space houses the collection of working jute-processing machines operated by teams of volunteers, some of them former mill workers like Lily Thomson who can tell visitors about the special sign language weavers developed so they could communicate above the ferocious noise of the looms (the last jute factory in Dundee didn't close until last year).

You can also hear well-known weaving songs and taped interviews with other mill hands. Visitors are normally encouraged at the end of the tour to see the excellent 13-minute film on Dundee's jute heritage (aimed somewhat over the heads of younger primary school children), but a pre-tour view might make more sense.

Schools will be encouraged to tailor their visit to their needs, according to the city's arts and heritage education officer, Nancy Davey. Although a number of schools have visited Verdant Works and teachers have attended planned activity time sessions, the education packs with character sketches of four typical mill workers won't be ready until May, when a number of mill workers' costumes will also be available for pupils to dress up in.

Work on phase two of the heritage centre, showing the uses of jute textiles - everything from wagon covers in the American West to First World War sand bags - and the disparity between the wealthy mill owners and their impoverished workers, is scheduled for completion in September.

Verdant Works is open seven days a week, reduced admission charge for school parties of Pounds 2 per pupil. Tel: 01382 225282

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