Stuffed crocodile and sugar cubes

2nd March 2001 at 00:00
Mummified Ancient Egyptian artefacts mingle with the last packet of Tate amp; Lyle at the McLean Museum and Art Gallery in Greenock. Deedee Cuddihy reports

Describing the McLean Museum and Art Gallery in Greenock as "one of the most interesting small local museums in Scotland" - as one current travel guide does - gives a woefully false impression of what is a real treasure trove for schools.

"Local" conjures up visions of shop window dummies dressed in bonnets and shawls while "small" indicates one or two rooms in an old-fashioned cottage.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The museum celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, and when it opened in 1876 Greenock was a centre for shipbuilding and transatlantic trading. It was one of the most important ports in Europe and the design and content of the McLean continues to reflect that.

The museum's founders - all members of the thriving philosophical society - were wealthy, educated people who had travelled abroad and collected all sorts of fascinating objects. After it opened, Lord Kelvin, the world-renowned physicist, came from Glasgow to speak at the museum's lecture hall and Sir William Burrell contributed a number of important art works.

The lecture hall itself was named in honour of James Watt, the Greenock-born engineer and inventor whose work was so crucial to the industrial revolution.

Over the past 10 years, the museum complex and displays have been completely refurbished and modernised. Conservation work has been carried out on the collections, many of which will be photographed and digitised to make them more accessible, and museum staff have now begun to concentrate their efforts on "audience development".

The McLean's collections, including examples of work by Scotland's most notable artists, from Allan Ramsay in the 18th century to the Colourists and Anne Redpath, are already well-known to specialists. Of particular interest are the Ancient Egyptian artefacts which attract visits from primary schools in Glasgow as well as nearby Inverclyde and Renfrewshire.

Curator Valerie Boa and assistant George Woods have created an Ancient Egypt study pack which can be used by teachers for a self-guided visit or one that involves staff-led activities in the education hall. These include a replica excavation, sketching and simple mask-making.

Ancient Egypt visits are aimed at P3s to P5s who should have no trouble getting to grips with the museum, where bjects are concentrated in one central, two-storey hall and displayed in a simple, attractive way. Less is more at the McLean, which has a policy of not cramming dozens of artefacts together and of leaving lots of space around display cases so that everyone can get a look at what's on show.

Although the museum's Egyptian mummy cartonnage (that's a highly-decorated, papier mache-type inner coffin) is one of the finest in Scotland, most children are more impressed by a very cute, 2,000-year-old mummified baby crocodile and the much younger - and bigger - stuffed Nile crocodile shot by a trustee of the museum while on a big game hunt in the early 1900s.

The Ancient Egyptian collection also features magic amulets; a stone with beautifully preserved hieroglyphics, taken from a temple built by the last pharaoh of Egypt, and little mass-produced, pottery burial figures that were bought by relatives of the dead as well as early tourists, back in Ancient Egyptian times.

Downstairs in the McLean, the museum's local history collections illustrate Greenock's glory days, when the town was a hive of industry and enterprise.

The displays show how businesses developed and adapted to changing trends and circumstances. And how some of those businesses spawned supporting and complementary concerns.

A blacksmith's, for example, diversified into ship building, which itself progressed from making tea clippers, through steam ships to submarines.

Local women found jobs in a factory set up to produce crockery for the shipping lines. And the rope works, which also supplied the shipping lines, moved into canvas manufacturing and went on to create the world's first waterproof tent.

Greenock's sugar industry, founded in 1765, once included a business that was established solely to produce the camel bone ash used in early refining processes.

The decline and death of the town's manufacturing base is also covered at the McLean. For instance, one display shows a placard used during a protest when a shipyard was closing down, and a letter to the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, pointing out how badly the closure would affect local families.

And then there's the last packet of Tate amp; Lyle sugar produced in the town, in 1997, which has been signed and dated by workers on the very last shift. But James Watt's brilliant portable document copying machine (invented in 1794) is on show too, and could well inspire young visitors.

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