Spirit of invention

30th June 2006 at 01:00
David Bocking joins students at a new exhibition which celebrates Muslim heritage

offee; cataract removal; combination locks; algebra; Arabic numerals; anaesthesia; pointed arches; public lighting; tulips; keys; soap. It seems that all of modern life is here, listed on the long ramp up from the entrance hall of Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry to the top floor exhibition: "1001 Inventions: Discover the Muslim Heritage in our World". A series of bold posters illustrates the main theme: that many things we take for granted can trace an origin back to the Muslim world of 1,000 years ago.

Visiting children can read out a host of objects and scientific discoveries as they go. "I learned about the first parachute jumper," says Daniel Childs, after discovering the story of the early flight attempt by Armen Firman, an Andalusian Arab. "In 852 he jumped off a tower in Cordoba and used his cloak as a parachute. I don't know if he survived." He did survive: the fabric slowed his fall and he sustained only minor injuries.

Firman's invention inspired Abbas Ibn Firnas, a Berber astronomer, who built a glider and took to the air in 875, more than 600 years before Leonardo Da Vinci sketched his glider and more than 1,000 before the Wright brothers' rather more famous flight attempt.

Throughout the exhibition, and the book and website, these discoveries will surprise anyone brought up on the idea that Western scientists discovered almost everything. "As far as I knew, it was just Europeans who were inventors but today I found out that Muslims were inventors too," says Nilam Patel.

A group of Year 7 and 8 students from All Saints Catholic College in Dukinfield, Lancashire, is exploring the exhibition with their learning resources manager, Julie Carss, and RE teacher, Claire Royal. "To me, the purpose of the exhibition is to raise awareness of Muslim culture," says Claire. "And I'd say it does that, but I'd see it as a starting point along with the website. You'd need to do follow-up work." Julie adds: "There's nothing published to back up any of this. There's a wealth of material in the exhibition, but in textbooks it's all about Europeans" - a point the exhibition backers hope to address.

The exhibition is organised by Manchester University, the city's Museum of Science and Industry, and the Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation, also based in Manchester. Backed by the Home Office and Department for Trade and Industry, the exhibition aims to raise awareness of the 1,000 years of Muslim heritage between 600 and 1600, to promote scientific innovation, and to enthuse young people from all backgrounds about science and engineering.

The project's background theme is that the era of European history that is usually known as the "Dark Ages" was actually a time of innovation and scientific development in the Muslim empire, which was growing across Europe, Africa and Asia from the seventh century onwards. The project aims to restore this "1000 years of missing history" to the world's classrooms.

The exhibition is split into sections - home, school, market, hospital, town, world and universe, each of which has examples of inventions and discoveries in the form of models, videos, illustrated panels and artefacts. "The way it is divided up is quite useful, as it links into different curriculum areas," says Claire, adding that, with a little work, the science-based materials could be used in RE or in the diverse Britain programme of the key stage 3 citizenship curriculum.

"The exhibition is visually attractive and has interesting information,"

says Claire. "But they're not offering materials to use when people come round, so I'd say it's essential to do a pre-visit before bringing pupils."

She thinks the teacher's pack is good, but that it is primarily designed for follow-up work. She also thinks that the exhibition would work better with staff on hand to interpret the more complicated exhibits. The All Saints children are particularly interested in two astronomy models, for example, but despite an instruction panel for each device, they can't make them work (and there's a suspicion that an accompanying poster of stars has been mounted in the wrong place).

Despite these misgivings, Alice Marshall, aged 12, is generally positive:

"I'd give the exhibition 8 out of 10," she says.

"It opened my eyes," says Daniel Childs. "I didn't know about Muslim inventors, I just knew about Europeans, but they've given us a way to live.

Without these people we wouldn't be as technologically advanced as we are."

"This has taught us a lot," says Hassan Zaffar. "I'm a Muslim, and it gives me inspiration. It makes you look up to these people, and feel proud of them. It makes you want to go and do something like that yourself."

* The 1001 Inventions exhibition is at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry until September 3Tel: 0161 833 0027

Email: education@msim.org.uk

It should reach London (venue to be decided) before the end of the year and will then tour the UK (including Inverness and Bristol in 2007) and the world.

* www.1001inventions.com and www.muslimheritage.com feature downloadable articles, notes and a teacher's pack for secondary science pupils which includes brief historical references to such discoveries as the pinhole camera, the suction pump, plant classification and perfume.

Each related activity is carefully illustrated and curriculum links and learning outcomes noted.

* 1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World, a beautifully illustrated book published by the Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation, can also be ordered for pound;25 at www.1001inventions.com

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