That was the year that was

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
The 20th century unfolds in a unique collection of memorabilia, from Capstans to the Spice Girls, writes Gillian Thomas.

What would be the headline in the Sun if dolphins were seen in the Mersey? How would the evening television news report the story? What if Manchester was given pound;1 million of National Lottery money for environmental improvements? How would the local radio station cover the news?

These questions were put to 27 10 and 11-year-olds from St Anne's county primary school at Denton, Greater Manchester, when they visited Opie's Museum of Memories in Trencherfield Mill, part of the Wigan Pier Heritage Centre. Schools can opt for a workshop on any relevant subject. In this case it was Have I Got News for You.

The museum, which opened in a redundant cotton mill beside the Leeds and Liverpool Canal last summer, displays items from an extraordinary collection of 20th-century memorabilia - others are on show in Gloucester - collected by the consumer historian Robert Opie.

The exhibits have been selected from more than 500,000 items in the collection which Opie first started in 1963, aged 16. The accumulated bits and pieces include packaging, advertisements, newspapers and domestic items from the 1880s to the present day. They provide a unique resource that brings colour and insight across a range of curriculum subjects.

In a street setting, 10 scenes each depict a decade of the 20th century, starting with a grocery and general store, whose wooden shelves are stocked with items ranging from Lifebuoy soap to Capstan Navy Cut cigarettes.

A shop assistant, one of the museum's seven actors, talks to school groups about the price of goods, such as sugar and salt, in "old" money, before decimalisation, using pennies and shillings for some taxing mental arithmetic. The St Anne's children particularly enjoyed being able to handle replica packets of biscuits and chocolate.

Next comes a chemist's shop filled with old-fashioned bottles of potions.

In the 1930s and 40s section, an usherette (another actor) shows visitors into a small cinema showing Pathe newsreels of historical events, including the abdication of Edward VIII, the evacuation of bomb-threatened London and an item on Gracie Fields.

There's a 1950s milk bar, where visitors can sit and choose hits of the time on a free juke box, before arriving at the Swinging Sixties. Here, appropriately for an era when Barbie and Sindy dolls made their appearance, there are clothes to try on in a "boutique " and television commercials to watch. They seem rather dated and unsophisticated now.

Each section includes a list of the decade's main events. You learn that cornflakes first appeared in 1924 but fish fingers not until some 30 years later.

The 1990s section is still sparse, apart from a cabinet of headlines and photographs relating to Diana, Princess of Wales. "It's too soon to decide what else will be appropriate," says Marilyn Sumner, one of the museum's heritage interpreation officers. Although the Spice Girls and space toys seem to have made the cut.

"At present schools can have workshops tailored to their own needs," she says. "Britain since 1930 is proving particularly popular. To help present it, we invite a 70-year-old volunteer to come in. She talks to the children in our Anderson shelter. Then we give the children a suitcase to pack, as if they were being evacuated."

"We had a brilliant day," says Kirsty Rimmer, Year 6 teacher at St Anne's. "The museum staff structured the visit very well, encouraging the children to focus on news topics as they went around and organising workshops in which they pretended to be writers and editors.

"Since going there, they have been compiling a scrapbook of the most significant reports from newspapers as part of their QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) work."

The chance for children to question a real person about rationing and blackouts is particularly valuable, according to the feedback from Highfield St Matthew's CE Primary school in Pemberton, Wigan, after its visit. The children had gone around the museum with a view to starting their own collection of everyday items.

Schools also see a performance of Century, a lively 25-minute ad-libbed play performed by the museum's actors. It portrays scenes from each of the decades, incorporating music and dance. It was amusing to see the opening of Britain's first McDonalds restaurant presented as history.

The Opie collection is only part of the attraction of visiting Wigan Pier Heritage Centre. It also houses the world's largest cotton mill steam engine still in working order; demonstrations are given every half-hour. The centre's other museum, The Way We Were, in a former warehouse across the canal, is devoted to late Victorian times. Opened in 1986, it attracts nearly 40,000 schoolchildren a year and has won a Sandford Award for Heritage Education. A waterbus transports visitors between the two museums.

Opie's Museum of Memories and The Way We Were, Wigan Pier, Wallgate, Wigan WN3 4EU.

Tel: 01942 702495; fax 01942 701927. Open Mondays-Thursdays 10am-5pm, Saturdays-Sundays 11am-5pm. Closed Fridays, Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year's Day. Admission for school visits: pound;2.95 primary pupils or pound;4 with an hour's workshop, pound;3.95 secondary pupils or pound;4.75 with workshop. Accompanying adults free 1:10 children. Extra adults pound;3.80 (primary) or pound;4.10 (secondary).

Contact: Debbie Hill, heritage interpretation administrato.

Classroom teaching packs free as part of the workshop package. Books and other materials, mainly for KS1 and 2, available for non-visiting schools.

The Robert Opie Collection, Museum of Advertising and Packaging, Albert Warehouse, The Docks, Gloucester GL1 2EH.Tel: 01452 302309.

Open Tuesdays-Sundays 10pm-5pm. From March open daily 10pm-6pm. Admission: pound;1.20 children or pound;1 for groups of more than 10. Accompanying adults free 1:10 children. Extra adults pound;2.50.

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