Magna – from steel to feel

South Yorkshire's new visitor attraction, Magna, might be attractive. But what is it, exactly?

Jim Butcher

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Magna – a major new attraction based in the disused Templeborough Steel Mill in the Don Valley between Rotherham and Sheffield, in the north of the UK – opened in April 2001.

But what is Magna, exactly? Is it a museum? A regeneration project? A means of addressing social exclusion? Is it a theme park? Educational? And who is it for? Children? Adults? School students?

In fact, Magna will attempt to straddle all of these aims and audiences. Like the Dome, and other millennial projects before it, Magna attempts to be many different things to many different people.

The name itself is quite deliberately ambiguous. Apparently in focus groups it conjured up: ice cream (Magnum?), guns (also Magnum), and chemicals (magnesium). The visitor attraction professionals presiding over Magna are very happy with this state of affairs, seeing it as a chance to mould a new and distinctive image around the brand Magna – from industry to experience; from steel to feel.

Magna is postmodern heritage – taking a theme from the past and remoulding it in the context of the ‘experience economy’.

The attraction is based around four pavilions, themed around earth, air, fire and water. The emphasis in each pavilion is on discovery through physical activity. In earth, a maze of passages leads the visitor down through the piles of earth and slag to the Digger Zone, a simulated quarry compete with real JCBs, hoppers, trucks and buckets. Visitors don’t just look, but can engage in a race to move vital minerals around the mini-works.

In the Fire Pavilion you can sit on the hot seat, specially designed ‘to discover just how hot your bum is’, and ‘be mesmerised by one of the world’s largest lava lamps – a real 1970s nightmare’. The Fire Pavilion involves a chain of sizzling overhead sparks, culminating in a violent wrap-around lightning storm.

Predictably enough, kids have ample opportunity to get soaked in the Water Pavilion. Your children can aim a water cannon at you, while you cower behind transparent curtains. Bath time was never such fun!

Magna is billed as a ‘science adventure centre’ based on ‘making learning fun’. The educational initiatives are extensive. All types of educational establishments will be targeted, from primary to higher level, in subjects such as science, technology, geography, history and tourism. Future plans include a link with the University of Sheffield Creative Robotics Unit, and their very own ‘robot wars’ arena.

At Magna there are no exhibits to study, as in more traditional museums – but there are many experiences to be had. You feel the heat of the fire, the sensation of the air, the coolness of the water and explore under the earth. The claim to be educational is based on a premise central to the growth of lottery-funded visitor attractions – that we learn best through doing, through experience, through feeling. In fact, the funding itself is in part justified on the basis of this broader educational role.

This approach is not unique. Magna’s publicity refers to the attraction as ‘one of a new breed of visitor attractions, offering the benefits of traditional museums, combined with the pure entertainment usually associated with theme parks’. The ill-fated Millennium Dome and Sheffield’s National Centre for Popular Music are also part of this new school of attractions.

But in combining museum with theme park, perhaps Magna should be more measured about its educational potential. Children will flock to Magna to have fun, just as they will to Alton Towers and Drayton Manor Park. I will take my kids to Magna for a treat when we are visiting the family in Derby and Yorkshire. Instead of trashing the house they can live out their destructive fantasies in Magna’s magnificent fantasy world.

But I won’t be expecting them to leave any the wiser about the science behind steel, and I am not expecting to be confronted with a barrage of questions beginning with ‘Dad, why…?’ on the subject of science.

I can well understand the attractiveness of the new visitor attraction philosophy. Many of us have had the experience of being dragged around museums by earnest parents in our teens. I for one was bored most of the time and made no secret of this to my patient father.

But, looking back, a bit of boredom was no bad thing. Whether bored, or just occasionally inspired (so my dad tells me), I began to understand a world beyond the immediate, beyond that which I could empathise with, interact with, feel. Fun, on the other hand, was immediate, spontaneous and unserious – and all the more pleasurable for that. A family pass to Magna is good value at £32.99 per year, but I wonder how the experience of being wowed by visitor attractions compares with the experience of visiting a museum, or if comparison is even useful?

Magna is also part of a wider regeneration initiative. Leisure industries are the ‘now’ industries in Britain’s post-industrial cities, and the association of regeneration with such industries has become the norm. Over 250 construction jobs have been created in its development, and when up and running, 100 to 150 jobs will be sustained through Magna. Thirty-six local companies supply the attraction.

The shift from steel to feel is highly evident in the economy of ‘post-industrial’ South Yorkshire. Steel city no more, Sheffield, along with its close neighbour Rotherham, is engaged in the process of re-presenting itself as a cultural city – a base for hospitality, sport and culture. The city has its own ‘cultural quarter’ featuring Full Monty tours, as well as the excellent Don Valley Stadium (underused, yet rarely mentioned in the ongoing saga over ‘our new national stadium’).

The National Centre for Popular Music (here interactive fun has failed to sustain sustainable visitor numbers) has reopened as part nightclub – surely the ultimate in interaction for a music attraction! But with commerce moving to out-of-town centres such as Meadowhall, Sheffield has plenty of nightclubs making no pretence at being anything other than…well, nightclubs.

I like museums. I am also a fan of theme parks. But I am to be convinced of the educational claims made for combining the two in visitor attractions such as Magna. I hope Magna is a great success – but I don’t imagine that such visitor attractions are, or need be, more than just great fun.

Jim Butcher is a senior lecturer in tourism and leisure at Canterbury Christ Church University College. He is the author of The Moralisation of Tourism: Sun, Sand…and Saving the World?, Routledge, 2003 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and he is a contributor to Ethical Tourism: Who Benefits?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

Putting objects in their place, by Josie Appleton

Science Museum: expertise not Wellcome?, by Josie Appleton

Museum autonomy: a thing of the past?, by Josie Appleton

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