The Full Monty comes to the abandoned steel mills of South Yorkshire in a centre that explores the four elements. Yolanda Brooks predicts a high wow factor
While the image of England's green and pleasant land has taken a bit of a bashing recently, the dark satanic steel mills of Templeborough, near Rotherham in South Yorkshire, have been undergoing a renaissance. Built in response to the First World War, Templeborough was once the steel-making centre of the industrial universe. But the world moved on, and in July 1993 the furnaces were cooled for good.
The local council formed a plan to turn it into a museum of steel-making. And, after years of discussion and feasibility studies, the Magna charitable trust bought the site from British Steel in 1998 and acquired sufficient funds to develop it. While the most prominent and expensive millennium project - the Dome - is enveloped in a fug of negative reactions, other schemes have attracted public acclaim, most notably the Eden Project in Cornwall, @Bristol in Avon, the National Botanic Garden of Wales in Carmarthenshire and Our Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh. Magna Science Adventure Centre will soon be added to that list.
With an pound;18.6 million grant from the Millennium Commission and another pound;27.4 million from sources including Rotherham metropolitan borough council, the European Regional Development Fund and the Yorkshire and Humber Regional Development Agency, Magna - which styles itself "the UK's first science adventure centre" - has officially opened in time for Easter. Although it doesn't ignore its roots, it is far more than a simple memorial to the glory of the steel industry. Education manager Anita de Brouwer explains: "We kept steel as an underpinning theme because that's the heritage of the building. But we look at it in a much wider context. The themes we've chosen of earth, air, fire and water are the four fundamental elements used in steel-making."
The four elements have been crafted into individual physical spaces - "pavilions" - each with exhibits, experiments and displays demonstrating scientific, technological and engineering principles.
Science Year starts in September, the National Space Science Centre in Leicester opens in June, and the Discovery Centre in Birmingham opens next month, so Magna staff are aware of the need to offer something distinctive. "We take a principle and look at the innovation, the creativity and the human side. We're trying to put the lifestyle issues to visitors. Every day you get in a car, you hop on a plane or you look at the weather, and there's a lot of science and technology behind that," says Ms de Brouwer.
Initial brainstorming sessions threw up 400 ideas for possible display. The man responsible for whittling these down to100-odd manageable exhibits was Magna's development director, Dr Tim Caulton, who is also responsible for exhibits at the Eureka! children's museum in Halifax, and the Discovery Centre. He says: "I started sourcing exhibits from around the world, and assesed them individually for educational value and the 'wow' factor."
Some of the exhibits have been bought from renowned attractions such as the Exploratorium in San Francisco, source of the mist-making machine in the air pavilion. Others have been made from scratch in the Netherlands and closer to home in Sheffield.
So where to start? Magna has lots of memorable displays and hands-on exhibits. The biggest wow will undoubtedly be generated by the fire tornado, a five-metre spiral of flame that will be released every six minutes in the fire pavilion. The light-and-sound show around the original arc furnace will also make your eyeballs swivel. Another popular exhibit, especially with younger children, will be the cherub that pees in your bucket if you answer questions correctly.
Wind tunnels, water cannons, geysers, fields of corn, a gyroscopic chair, plane wings, demonstrations by blacksmiths, prey and hunter robots, and earthmovers are all there.
But before you even get near any exhibits, Magna makes an impression. The old shed that houses the entire show is 350 metres long and 42 metres high. Each zone, designed by architects Wilkinson Eyre, is in its own space. The air pavilion, in a mock translucent airship, and the water pavilion, imagined as a steel wave, are particularly impressive. Walking along the gangway from one pavilion to the next offers great views of the site. Between the exhibits are electric art zones, so your eyes are always busy.
Traces of the old steelworks remain, with the juxtaposition of grime and gleam evident throughout. Aspects of steelmaking are covered in each of the areas, and pieces of machinery provide constant reminders of the site's former life.
Schools are expected to account for 20 to 25 per cent of visitors, and hundreds of teachers have already visited, giving feedback on all aspects of the attraction.
Pupils arriving at the Magna schools reception area can choose between three classrooms - one dedicated to the environment with links to Blackburn Meadows, the wetland nature reserve opposite (run by the Sheffield Wildlife Trust), and two networked rooms. Structured talks and tours will be available and regular demonstrations will be held in each of the pavilions.
There is a domed area where pupils can eat packed lunches. Built by the same people who made Richard Branson's round-the-world balloons, it soars to a height of nine metres. There's even a technology-themed adventure playground for younger children, overlooking the nature reserve.
At Magna, visitors of all ages are encouraged to feel and prod and touch and gawp. Many of the exhibits are visually thrilling, but the underpinning educational value ensures that style is unlikely to rule over substance.
Educational trips to Magna cost pound;3 per child, plus pound;1 for workshops. Teachers and tour organisers free. Family visits cost pound;5.99 per adult and pound;4.50 per child. Open from 10am to 5pm. Contact: Magna Education Service, Sheffield Road, Templeborough, Rotherham S60 1DX. Tel: 01709 720002. Website: www.magnatrust.org.uk