Life on the ocean wave;Travel;England;Hull

5th February 1999 at 00:00
From a side-winder trawler to decorated whales' teeth, John Harrison explores Hull's museums and their record of the city

Arctic Corsair, Britain's last surviving side-winder trawler, is the latest newcomer to Hull's various museums. She became part of Streetlife, the city's transport museum, in January - as the first event in the city's year-long celebration of the 700th anniversary of its Royal Charter.

Built in 1960, the 191-foot ship operated from Hull until 1986, sailing as far afield as Greenland and Newfoundland. Now she is permanently moored beside the museum's striking glass-sided building. pound;400,000 worth of restoration work makes her look as if she has just returned from a typical fishing trip. Visitors can explore throughout, from the captain's cabin and crew's quarters to the hold, which could carry up to 200 tons of fish.

Streetlife covers local transport from horses onwards. It has railway wagons and a signal box, buses, the city's last tram, lorries, vans, cars including a 1938 Morris 8 (original price pound;132) and a wide variety of bicycles.

Attractive display boards highlight how much people's lives have been changed by all the developments in transport. Many exhibits are enlivened by period voices and sounds, including a stagecoach you can sit in as it bumps and sways. Horse smells and the coachman's shouts add to the realism of the "ride".

Two very different museums are also situated in the same quiet old cobbled High Street. The 17th-century Wilberforce House, where William Wilberforce was born, contains collections of dolls, costumes and clocks, as well as an exhibition about his life as the local MP and his role in the abolition of slavery.

A cross-section of a ship's hold with disturbingly realistic slaves jammed together provides a vivid reminder of that dreadful trade. You hear them wailing, the timbers creaking and an angry sailor shouting: "Get out of my way, you animal."There are also shackles, whips and posters advertising slave auctions. You get a more vivid impression of the slaves than of Wilberforce himself, as his life story is confined to pictures and display-boards.

The third museum in the High Street is the Hull amp; East Riding Museum, which is concerned mainly with the area's early history, particularly in Roman and Celtic times. The exhibits include a life-size replica of an Iron Age thatched hut and some stunning mosaics, but the highlight is a 41-foot section of a 2,300-year-old boat found nearby in 1984. Once powered by 10 paddlers and thought to have been used to carry cargo on inland tidal channels, it is displayed in a sealed glass tank with water and wax sprayed on it continually to preserve the wood.

The city's old grammar school in the Market Place, built in 1583, now houses the Hands On History museum, designed mainly as a curriculum resource centre. Its main hall is filled with hands-on Victorian exhibits from kitchen equipment and dressing-up clothes to a schoolroom and two-seat wooden privy.

Upstairs the city's recent social history is on show, based largely on the lives of two real people, Elsie and Ray, who were born in 1925 and 1936. The displays cover the dramatic changes they have seen in everything from the fall in infant mortality to toys, eating habits, entertainment and attitudes to marriage.

In contrast, an adjoining room contains full-size replicas of some of the opulent golden treasures found in Tutankhamun's tomb when it was discovered in Egypt in 1922. Made for the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley two years later, they were subsequently purchased by a Hull man who gave them to the city.

Hull's Maritime Museum occupies one of the city's most impressive buildings, an ornately-decorated triangular Victorian block, originally the headquarters of the Dock Company.

Its three sections are devoted to ships, fishing and whales, mainly shown through paintings or objects in glass cases. The most interesting are the model ships, including a striking 12-foot trawler, and whales' teeth decorated by sailors while their ships were trapped in ice.

In the entrance hall, three plaques commemorate the Admiralty's gratitude to three Hull tugs which took part in the Falklands war, yet there seems to be no other reference to them in the museum - not even a photograph.

Surprisingly too, despite the admirable variety of Hull's museums and their efficient education service, there is scant reference to the Second World War in any of them. Yet Hull's docks were a prime and conveniently close target for German bombers and 90 per cent of the city's buildings were destroyed or damaged in air raids. As a result its appearance changed dramatically. Yet this important aspect of the city's development is barely covered.

Museums open daily but Hands on History is exclusive to school groups during term-time. Admission pound;1 per museum. One-day school group tickets (pound;10 for local schools, pound;15 for others) cover all museums except Hands On History, pound;1 per pupil, accompanying adults free. Free worksheets; education rooms. Book first, tel: 01482 613902

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