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Wednesday, 11 April, 2001, 21:52 GMT 22:52 UK
Science centre aims to 'steel' the show
Earth, wind and fire... in Rotherham
Laws of gravity, theories of relativity and the mysteries of the Earth have taken on a new appearance in recent years, as a new wave of science centres aims to turn scientific fact into a whole lot of fun.

The old steelworks provides a most amazing backdrop

Christine Melia, Magna

The 46m Magna centre which opens to the public on Thursday, follows in the footsteps of Millennium-funded projects such as Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh and the Whowhatwherewhenwhy (W5) centre which opened in Belfast last month.

Housed in the former Templeborough Steelworks in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, Magna claims to be the first science attraction to focus on the four elements of earth, wind, fire and water.

The vast exhibition space, which is big enough to hold three Tate Moderns, invites visitors to see, hear, touch, feel and even smell the elements at close hand.

Elements of surprise

"The site really makes the most of its original setting, and the existing structure of the old steelworks provides a most amazing backdrop to the attractions on offer," Magna's Christine Melia told BBC News Online.

Visitors can feel the full force of a fire tornado which is set off every six minutes in the Fire pavilion.

People can take control of a JCB digger to explode a rock face in the Earth pavilion.
Feel the heat: Visitors will enjoy a sensory experience

Visitors also get the chance to harness the power of water to launch a rocket in the Water pavilion, and even feel what it's like to be a piece of dust sucked through a vacuum cleaner in the area dedicated to the element wind.

Want to see what your body weight looks like in water volume? Step on the scales in the Water pavilion and you will find out.

Educational, yet fun, exhibits are everywhere, and project organisers have literally gone to the ends of the Earth to source original items.

Travel up in one of the lifts and there will be sparks of electricity flying above your head from a specially designed sculpture from the US.

Steel roots

The fact that the centre also focuses on the steel history of the local area is another strength, believes Ms Melia.

She says visitors can "experience the human face" of the steel industry by means of a spectacular multi-media show which they have to climb through.

Another show called The Big Melt, allows people to travel through an old steel furnace which has been transformed in "something akin to a movie set" complete with heat, light and sound effects.
Tate Modern
Tate Modern put the 'wow' factor back into galleries

Nina Baxter, spokeswoman from the Millennium Commission, which contributed 22.8m to the project, says the site epitomises the new face of science attractions.

"We hope it will be a springboard for people to explore science, engineering and technology in a very unique and exciting way."

She added that the commission, which will fund up to 50% of a selected project, has seen a surge in applications from science projects in recent years.

"When we first started with the fund we didn't have a particular brief to finance certain types of projects.

"But currently around a quarter of our budget - about 350m - has gone to science-based projects," said Ms Baxter.

Economic boost

Many of these projects, she says, are being built in areas that have seen local economies suffer and industries shut down.

An exciting new attraction, she adds, not only creates an element of local pride, but provides jobs and helps boost the local economy.

It is hoped that exciting projects such as Magna can put places such as Rotherham on the national and international tourist trail.

"We are also now encouraging many of these attractions to pool their marketing resources so that the benefits of visiting many different parts of the country can be promoted," Ms Baxter said.

Magna opens at a time when many in the tourist industry are questioning whether such large-scale projects have enough visitors to go round.

There have been a few noted failures in recent years, such as the Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield which had to close due to low visitor numbers.

Other sites such as the Royal Armouries in Leeds and the Earth Centre in Doncaster which have struggled to reach visitor targets have had to modify aspects of their businesses to attract the crowds.

Magna is starting out with a "modest" visitor projection of 300,000 people a year - compare this with the ambitious 12 million that the Millennium Dome had hoped, but failed, to attract.

When Magna opens its doors to the paying public on Thursday, project organisers say they are confident that they have all the elements in place to really 'wow' the crowds.

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