Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Song of Steel

David asked to go to Magna again today. I thought I had blogged about it before but the search engine suggests no more than a passing reference.

Magna is a science museum with a difference. It is built inside a massive old smelting shed- parts of the former Steel, Peach & Tozer steelworks (known colloquially as Steelos) in Rotherham a few minutes drive from Sheffield Meadowhall. It features four new pavilion structures within the enormous space, devoted to the elements; earth, fire, water and air. On the hour, several times a day, one of the cold rusty furnace behomoths lurches noisily to life in a simulated inferno with the aid of clever lighting, smoke, sparks and special effects.

This building is industrial archeology on an inspiring scale. Massive hooks hang silently in the heavens, enormous crucibles litter the depths and mysterious machinery lurks in the corners of this incredible space even though it is a fraction of its original size.

Magna opened in 2001 and has been one of the more successful Millennium Projects. We were Annual passholders for a couple of years as David liked it so much, although familiarity breeds contempt and we became jaded of the place somewhat as more and more exhibits broke down and didn't get fixed (not kid-proof enough).

Magna has had some success (indoor bungee jumping!) but also some flops, namely the ill-fated Robotics show and the Energy pavilion, now closed with some of the exhibits distributed around the other spaces. However, it does have a huge outside play area which has been repeatedly expanded and now with a very wet area added, called Aqua-Tek. It would be wonderful in Orlando but at Tinsley on a cold, wet, windy squally day in January the padlock is still on the gate...

So, after possibly a two year absence, we returned with reasonable but not too high expectations and we weren't overly disappointed. Lots of construction work going on but mainly to add facilities for corporate hire. Lots more interactive panels on the mainwalkway with a novel searchlight arrangement- you shine it around and certain items trigger a vignette on-screen. We also heard a number of steel songs on these panels, one of which shocked David somewhat as they sang "send the bugger back" in one of them. No, it wasn't Half a Shilling, the racist folk group from the Phoenix Club, but The Song of Steel by BBC Radio Ballads and you can listen to it yourself online here (with a little patience).

So, quite a lot new, but what of the old? well disappointingly, they continue to have maintenance issues*, lots of mainline & lesser displays aren't working properly, are erratic, out of adjustment, or even quietly spirited away. (A display of metallic flares in bunsen flames in the fire pavilion had been welded over so those not in the know wouldn't even know it had been there). The trouble is, it is easy to blag money for capital projects, but not for revenue ones.

One final nail in the coffin- the entrance Cafe let David down badly, no crisps or sugar-free pop, just healthy food and drinks, which the management apparently thought was a good idea. Excuse me? Isn't this a bit hypocritical if you still sell blueberry muffins and Danish pastries? Spare me the bullshit about think of the children until you stop selling ice creams. Healthy choices fine, but no choice is just paternal nannyism. Spare us from that please, we get enough of that from the state already...

We didn't leave empty handed- I bought a CD of The Song of Steel which is full of anecdotes as well as the specially composed songs that we had heard indoors. I'd recommend it if you can find it, here it is on Amazon.

(* During the early years, Magna organised an evening event for Adult passholders only- a chance to find out more and get onto the JCB diggers without having to queue with ankle-biters. The Museum Director made a presentation about the place and invited questions. I raised the matter of the high level of exhibits being out of order and questioned whether they were robust enough. He explained that many of them had been commissioned from other Science Centres who were all too aware of the destructive malevolence of children. He expressed concern that we had such a perception and when I pointed out that many items were off because of consumables such as projector lamps, he made the memorable management-speak comment that it was probably less of a design issue and more of a maintenance issue...)

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