Streets ahead

3rd September 2004 at 01:00
The new town of Basingstoke has recreated an old town in a huge shed, Bernard Adams reports

A gigantic metal shed in a Basingstoke leisure park is an unlikely place to find a prize-winning museum. But Milestones has done more than win prizes: last year 11,000 schoolchildren visited what has been described as "an outdoor museum indoors".

"Museum" isn't quite the right word for the astonishing recreation inside the huge modern structure of a Hampshire town - part Victorian and part early 20th-century. It has shops, squares, tram-tracked cobbled streets, antique bicycles, costumed dummy pedestrians, a railway station and a truly remarkable collection of commercial vehicles. These range from Victorian trams to fresh-painted 1930s buses and dinky little 1920s lorries made by the once huge but now defunct Hampshire vehicle manufacturer, Thorneycroft.

Milestones is the result of a Heritage Lottery grant given to Hampshire County Council and Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council to create a new museum to house the county's large but little-seen social history collection. Learning development officer Ruth Kerr has been involved in the educational side of Milestones from the beginning.

"So far we've concentrated on key stages 12, but KS3 is our next thing," she says. She is very proud of the audio guide programme - the only one in the country for KS12 - which covers both Victorian Britain and Britain since 1930. Pupils use Acoustiguide wands as they wander around their selected area of the museum with occasional pauses to allow time to handle objects.

The other big hit is Toys and Discovery, a programme I followed with 61 pupils from St George's College Junior School from Weybridge, Surrey. The red-blazered six and seven-year-olds were soon armed with museum pencils and clipboards, then split into two groups - one to do Toys, the other Discovery. The Toy group were led down to street level and wandered through to a little 1930s square. There they sat on a little "grass" lawn behind some railings. On the lawn were five mats bearing different legends. And on each mat sat a box with a tightly closed lid. The boxes were opened and the children impatiently pulled out a mixture of old teddy bears, new plastic tanks, ancient and modern tops, board games, skipping ropes and much else.

On one mat they had to place the old toys on a snake-like timeline; another had to decide what should be binned (there was a lot of discussion about what to do with a worn-looking Teletubby). The children sussed the way plastic had generally replaced wood; that modern toys were always more colourful, but that some of the older ones - such as the ivory Spillikins - were valuable.

The Discovery tour takes in a Post Office, a 1930s square where clip-boarded pupils were enthusiastically spying out and ticking off period street objects and a treasure trove of domestic appliances. The pupils marvel at the lady using a vacuum-cleaner to dry her hair, antique gas stoves, the ancient twin-tub washing machine and the iron that didn't seem to use electricity.

Afterwards they had nearly an hour to look around the museum. One pupil said: "I feel really strange - as if I'm in the past." Not surprising really because another school had arrived and teachers and pupils were wandering the streets in full Victorian costume.

"It's the only museum that I've worked at that has a real 'wow!' factor for children," says Ruth Kerr. "When they are in the museum they are walking through a replica of the past, which is quite unusual, particularly in this part of the country. I'll never forget one pupil who came here and he said 'ooh, it looks just like the beginning of Coronation Street'."

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