Lights of Juteopolis

6th February 1998 at 00:00
Verdant Works museum in Dundee was formerly a 19th-century jute mill and stands in one of Scotland's earliest urban industrial areas. At its height, 50,000 Dundonians were employed in the jute trade and the city, which became known as "Juteopolis", supplied nearly all the world's demand for jute products. Jute fabric has been used for everything from covered wagons in the American Wild West to extra-long fire hoses in skyscrapers.

Created and run by Dundee Industrial Heritage, Verdant Works is a shining example of an "edutainment" facility. Its original focus of interest was a collection of 12 quarter-size jute-processing machines, formerly used at the local technical college to train mill workers. But although a visit to the factory floor is essential, if only to experience the terrible noise real textile workers had to put up with, machines now form only a part of the 1998 Verdant Works experience.

Education officer Gillian Harris advises schools to begin their tour in the comfortable film theatre, where a showing of the 15-minute movie Juteopolis calms the children down and prepares them for what lies ahead.

Most visitors then make their way to the authentically furnished works office, where, against a soundtrack of scratching pens and clattering typewriters, the remarkably life-like figures of male clerks can be heard complaining about girls being brought in to take over their jobs.

Mood-setting lights and sounds accompany you on a fascinating trip to India to view the jute harvest before its long overseas journey to Dundee. The vast machines room next door is staffed by cheerful volunteers, who not only know how to set the exhibits in motion, but can answer almost any question about the textile industry that made Dundee famous. Listening posts provide stories and songs about life in the mills.

The Verdant Works high-tech activity area offers plenty of hands-on opportunities, even for children as young as seven, who could easily get to grips with the attractive, neon-lit "Uses of Jute" display.

You can also experiment with steam engines, water power and the sign language that jute workers had to use when their machines were running. The social history gallery, which offers a rich and dazzling mix of reconstructed rooms (including a shared tenement toilet whose occupant gets very annoyed when visitors try to open the door), archive film, sound, computer interactives and very cleverly displayed objects, shows what life was really like for Dundee's jute workers - and for the city's immensely wealthy jute barons.

Ian Wilson, head of history at Dundee High School, says: "We take all our second-year pupils to Verdant Works, because it ties in well with our industrial revolution topic. They've been learning about dangerous working conditions and 'mill fever', so a tour of the machines room is essential. Pupils can speak to the machine operators, who have a wealth of knowledge and encourage them to ask questions. The visit adds colour and depth to their school studies."

Val Mackie, a teacher at Blackness Primary School in Dundee, is very impressed with Verdant Works. "All our Primary 6 and 7 classes get a chance to visit. It fits in well with our work on environmental studies, but it can also come under Victorians and Heritage.

"We do a pre-visit lesson, using material provided by the schools loan service, and a follow-up in the classroom." Blackness was the first school to use a new, 20-question quiz-style guide to the social history gallery, which they found very useful.

Deedee Cuddihy Verdant Works, West Henderson's Wynd, Dundee DD2 5BT. Tel: 01382 225282

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