PLEASURELANDS - 200 years of Fun FairCity Arts Centre, Edinburgh until January 8. tel 0131 529 3993
Deedee Cuddihy is thrilled by a free exhibition about fairground life which educates and entertains in equal measure
Are the "shows" as good as they used to be? Visitors to the City Arts Centre in Edinburgh can judge for themselves at an exhibition that covers 200 years of travelling fairs in the UK. Pleasurelands is spread over all three floors of the building where the designers, using lights, sound and colour, have succeeded in recreating much of the atmosphere of a traditional showground.
The first floor offers an introduction to the world of the travelling fair where, according to one account, "you would see people's eyes light up in a way they never did at any other time".
Carved horses and other "gallopers" dating from the 19th century are shown in a traditional merry-go-round setting. They include the delightfully primitive Vosper horses, which were made in Portsmouth more than 150 years ago and were powered by two men wearing top hats, who stood in the centre of the ride and turned a big iron handle.
"Mr Gilligan's Galloping Ponies", in use until the 1960s, date from 1902 and were pulled along by real horses, with children exchanging jam jars or household rags for a ride.
Archive films, with appropriate music, show fairgrounds in action from the 1920s to more modern times. Nearby, visitors itching to participate can turn the handle on a table-top model of a carousel and make it go round.
The second floor of Pleasurelands gets down to the nitty-gritty of the travelling fair experience with flashing lights, traditional slot machines (operated with old pennies borrowed from the gift shop), documentary film of scary rides and a mock-up of a win-a-prize stall.
See the actual motor bike used by a "Wall of Death" rider (they included eight-year-old Arthur Harris, now a leading UK showman); try to throw a ping-pong ball into a clown's mouth; then head for the Activities Area.
Children can make clown puppets, masks and sun catchers, or design a ride.
There's a circus-style reading tent and a low-tech science corner involving toy cars, ramps and a stopwatch.
On floor three, visitors are taken behind the scenes at the fair which, in reality, operates between two worlds: "the theatre and spectacle of the show and the lives of the people who travel with their businesses".
Even these days, an average show family (there are an estimated 360 in Scotland alone) takes part in 30-40 events a year. According to one show person, "setting up on the fairground is far simpler than it looks, because we've done it for so long that we know what rides fit where". Dismantling a fairground attraction is called "pulling down" and show people stay in "living vans" rather than caravans.
The third floor also covers the trickery or illusion side of travelling fairs, explaining that "19th-century showmen relied on the ability to spin a tale and to fool the public into suspending their belief".
Learn about Houdini and his water-filled torture cell, "the greatest sensational mystery ever attempted in this or any other age!". Watch original film of a man diving into a small pool of water from a great height. View yourself in a corridor of fun-house mirrors. Discover why the image of a human skull appears on a blank wall.
Pleasurelands touches on the freak shows that were a feature of many fairs right up to the 1960s, when people's medical conditions and disabilities were "exploited as attractions that people would pay to see". There was, for instance, "the live leprechaun - the world's smallest man - 2 ft 2 in high. Educated - intelligent - with the gift of the blarney".
This free exhibition is designed for families and primary schools, for whom a teachers' pack has been created aimed at the English language, art and science areas of the curriculum.
A programme of events is taking place throughout the run of the show and includes a talk on Scottish shows and show people by Vanessa Toulmin, assistant director of the National Fairground Archive at Sheffield University.