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Chemistry International
Vol. 24, No. 1
January 2002


Catalyst – the Museum of the Chemical Industry

A museum in northern England makes chemistry a fun learning experience

by Christine Allison

Tucked 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.

The location 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 century.

The building 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 Canal–at one time the hub of industrial activity–flow nearby.

Many hands-on exhibits make learning about science fun.

I remember 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 spectacular–and the elevator certainly makes the view easier to appreciate as you rise above the trees around the building.

How 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.

The Exhibits
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 clips–helping to relay the message throughout its four galleries.

Scientrific, 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.

Upstairs 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.

The story 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.

Catalyst overlooks the banks of the River Mersey and the St. Helens/Sankey Canal.

In the 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.

Ecoquest 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 hands-on activities.

A Well-Kept Secret
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.

Families 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).

Catalyst's 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.

Come and see us and have a visit full of fascination and fun. We have so much to offer.

For more 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.+44 151 495 2030)

Christine Allison is director of Catalyst–The Museum of the Chemical Industry.



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