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Gillian Thomas sets sail around a new museum of maritime history

First came the Tate St Ives, then the Eden Project in St Austell. Now, completing a "golden triangle", is the National Maritime Museum Cornwall, which opened this week in Falmouth.

Part of a large waterside development between the docks and the town centre, the pound;28m purpose-built museum includes the national small boat collection, boat-building workshops, a gallery devoted to Cornwall's maritime history and the Nav-station of interactive screens covering tides, navigation and the weather.

"Education is at the heart of everything we will be doing in the museum" says Peter Cowling, the museum's director. "From the simplest gallery to the most technical book in the library, we have a mission to enlighten. Fortunately, our subject matter lends itself to the more entertaining end of the learning spectrum, enabling us to find novel ways of explaining even complex phenomena."

Visitors begin by "setting sail" through the sights and sounds of a stormy sea, before moving into a gallery containing nine craft, chosen to illustrate the many ways in which boats are used, including leisure, work, rescue and exploration. There is a life-raft, a racing yacht and Waterlily, a steam launch built in the 1860s which starred in the film Three Men in a Boat. Films, photographs and interviews with famous sailors and designers vividly tell the story of each boat and the people who sailed in it.

Flotilla is the name of the impressive main gallery, which has been designed to resemble a sail loft. Opposite the picture windows overlooking the harbour, a massive wall of beechwood panels curves like the side of a ship. Some 18 boats are suspended from the high ceiling, all swaying gently in the breeze coming in from the sea. Eight more craft are displayed at floor-level, each with a touch-screen information panel.

Presentation aside, it is the variety of the boats which impresses, from a small coracle to a 20-metre long rowing "10" donated by Eton College, and the yacht Superdocious, which won Olympic gold in 1968. The oldest is a Thames racing wherry from 1865; the newest, a 2002 windsurfer capable of sailing in mast-high waves.

Children will particularly enjoy going down the spiral staircase leading to two five-metre high windows through which they can see the sea and a variety of marine life swimming by on the other side. The staircase leads to the museum's 29-metre high tower, wit panoramic views over the surrounding area.

More boats will be on show outside next to a pontoon made of recycled plastic bags. During the summer, visitors will be able to arrive by boat from a new "park and float" car-park at the edge of town.

The electronic information provided throughout the museum is backed by an impressive reference library of books, magazines and archives which will be available to researchers.

Schools will also be catered for, with a series of workshops linked to science, history, design and technology, geography and environmental studies, available from next February.

"Our education programme is planned to be hands-on and a real twist on today's standard expectation of a museum," says Jill Robinson, the education manager. "Workshops will bring everything to life and we are already getting bookings from schools."

National Maritime Museum Cornwall. Open 10am-5pm with free admission during "sea trials", which run until the official opening on 19 February 2003. Admission: adults pound;5.90, children pound;3.90, school groups pound;3.30 a head (workshops pound;25).Tel: 01326 313388;

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