Vol. 24, No. 1
the Museum of the Chemical Industry
in northern England makes chemistry a fun learning experience
away in northern England is a museum unlike any other in the world.
Catalyst: the Museum of the Chemical Industry in Widnes, Cheshire, is
a unique attraction, the only museum of its kind focusing on
chemistry and the chemical industry and the vital role they play in
our everyday lives.
of this hands-on science center is no coincidence. Widnes is the birthplace
of the modern chemical industry. Its roots date back in the mid-19th
itself is from the 1860s, and it too has close ties to the chemical
industry, being the headquarters of Gossages Soap Works. The River Mersey
and the St. Helens/Sankey Canalat one time the hub of industrial
hands-on exhibits make learning about science fun.
vividly my first visit to Catalyst. Not only am I a museum professional,
but a Widnesian, born and bred, so climbing the four flights of stairs
leading to the observatory has always held special significance for
me. Today, most people make the journey to the top of the building in
a scenic glass lift rising over 100 feet above the ground. Even after
climbing all the stairs, the views are quite spectacularand the
elevator certainly makes the view easier to appreciate as you rise above
the trees around the building.
It All Began
The inspiration for Catalyst came from the Society of Chemical Industry,
the Halton Borough Council, and interest in the chemical industry. The
idea was first put forth in 1983. Five years later, shortly after the
building had been acquired, the first exhibition opened in the glass
observatory on the top floor.
Catalyst is a place where science fuses with fun, and of course, chemistry
is most fun when it is hands on. There are over 100 interactive exhibits,
computers, and puzzles as well as text and film clipshelping
to relay the message throughout its four galleries.
which opened in 1991 as one of the first exhibits, is a ground floor
gallery containing over 30 interactive exhibits. I call this our "play
station, " because everyone who passes through learns something new
by playing with the hands-on science activities and computers.
from Scientrificare two additional galleries: Birth of an Industryand
Chemicals for Life. Birth of anIndustry provides some historic background
to the chemical industry. The exhibit traces developments in the field
of chemistry, from the ancient Egyptians and Greeks through alchemy,
to the beginnings of the chemical industry in Widnes and up to advances
in the 1940s.
of the industry leads into Chemicals for Life, which looks at
the effects of the chemical industry on our everyday lives. Visitors
to the center are often surprised to learn that items such as x-ray
film, medicines, textiles, CDs, toy Lego blocks, and many more products
were made possible by the chemical industry.
overlooks the banks of the River Mersey and the St. Helens/Sankey
Enviroforum, visitors can watch a film that answers questions
often raised by the general public about safety, pollution, water and
air quality, and other issues involving the chemical industry.
is housed in the glass, observatory gallery on the top floor. This innovative
exhibition explores the links between the built and the natural environment.
The layout of the gallery, punctuated by the stunning views, encourages
visitors to find out more about the "green" environment through the
Visitors say that Catalyst is a well-kept secret. We host approximately
40000 visitors each year, 18000 of whom are school-children on organized
visits. The Education Service, having its own suite, is the jewel in
the crown of Catalyst. The well-qualified education staff
provides sessions on a variety of subjects. Eminent professors
and specialists are often brought in to enhance the program. All key
stages of science/chemistry within the National Curriculum are covered
by the service.
account for the majority of the more than 20000 general visitors. During
holiday periods, we offer week-long activities on a wide variety of
topics. Recently activities have included Bubble Trouble (learning
how to make magnificent, huge bubbles), Creepy Crawly Show
(with live spiders, snakes, tree frogs, and lizards), Music Mayhem (making
and playing musical instruments), and Junk Beach Buggy Challenge (a
recycling workshop with a difference).
funding is through the admission price paid by visitors and school groups,
shop and café income, and sponsorship from industry, without
which it would not be able to continue. In the current economic climate,
however, sponsorship is becoming more difficult to find. Yet Catalyst
is playing an important role in challenging people's perceptions of
the chemical industry, in opening their eyes to the vital role that
the industry plays and how different and difficult their lives would
be without the products that are so often taken for granted. Catalyst
provides a superb communication platform for industry and a center of
excellence for education.
and see us and have a visit full of fascination and fun. We have so
much to offer.
information; details of opening times, events, and activities; and sponsorship
opportunities, contact Christine Allison, Director, Catalyst, Mersey
Road, Widnes, Cheshire, WA8 7HP (tel: +44 151 420 1121, fax.+44 151
Allison is director of CatalystThe Museum of the Chemical Industry.