Catalyst (museum)

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Catalyst Science and Discovery Centre.
Model of a former bleach worker.

Catalyst is a science centre and museum devoted to the chemical industry. Its full title is Catalyst Science Discovery Centre.[1] It is located on Spike Island in Widnes, Cheshire, in the north west of England, and situated on the north bank of the River Mersey (grid reference SJ512841).


The museum is said to be the world's first museum dedicated to the chemical industry,[2] although museums devoted to chemistry (rather than to the chemical industry) such as Kazan chemical museum,[3] Farsman Mineralogy Museum,[4] and Zelinsky Chemistry Museum,[citation needed] Museum "Chemical Industry of the USSR" in the former VDNKh USSR[5] and Kiev Museum of Chemical Industry did exist earlier. It opened in 1989, when its name was "The Museum of the Chemical Industry".[6]

The museum is housed in an old four-storey building with modern extensions. The building was originally known as the Tower Building and was constructed around 1860 by John Hutchinson as the administrative centre for his alkali business. It later became the head office of the Gossage soap company,[7] which at one time was the largest of its kind in the world and handled 50% of the UK's soap exports.[8] Moreover, the town of Widnes was once considered to be the centre of the chemical manufacturing industry in the North West and has strongly been influenced by it for the last 170 years.[8] In 1989 a glass lift and an enclosed glazed roof-top observation deck, designed by Austin-Smith:Lord,[9] were added to the building in order to develop it into a museum. In 1994–95, an extension was added to the north to provide an education centre and visitor services.[10]

The centre gives information to visitors, including school parties, about science, particularly chemistry.[11] In addition to static exhibitions and hands-on experiments, it contains the Alchemy Theatre which gives three-dimensional presentations and allows interactive voting.[12] Family workshops are arranged during school and bank holidays.[13] The centre organises a Science Club for 11 to 14 year-olds and OATS for 14 to 19 year-olds which meet monthly.[14] The museum holds a collection of archives relating to the chemical industry. These include documents, photographs and the entire research archive of the ICI General Chemical Division.[15]

According to former director Dr. Gordon Rintoul, as quoted in an article about the opening of the new building, one of the main purposes of the museum was to forge closer links between industry and the public and industry and education.[16]

Catalyst is operated by a charitable trust with a Board of Trustees. The development of the museum was initially funded by chemical industry companies, national and local government,[2] and funding has also come from the European Union, and from the Heritage Lottery Fund.[11] It is now supported by a number of partners[17] and further helped by a group of volunteers, the Friends of Catalyst.[18]

Currently,[when?] the museum attracts some 30,000 visitors per annum. About 25% of the current annual total is accounted for by school classes for which Catalyst provides an education programme that links directly to the National Curriculum. Catalyst holds the accreditation of 'Quality Assured Visitor Attraction' and to date, has won a number major awards, including the prestigious Gulbenkian award.[19]


Chemical engineering exhibit in Scientrific.
Hands-on exhibits
Birth of an Industry
Museum element of the centre that gives an overview of the historical development of the chemical industry — objects, documents, pictures, films, computer quiz
World of Opportunities
Gives an insight into jobs and career prospects in the chemical industry - DVD clips and interactive displays
Exhibits dealing with recycling and the landscape that can be seen from here


Although the museum is relatively young, it has already seen some major changes of location and of the exhibition concept, especially during the first years after its establishment.[19][20] The development of Catalyst was originally initiated by a number of companies in the chemical industry in partnership with Halton Borough Council. It began as a research project in 1982 to commemorate the centenary of the Society of Chemical Industry. A study was conducted to find out whether sufficient material and an appropriate location were available to set up a museum devoted to chemical industry and a temporary display area was set up in the Old Town Hall in Widnes. It was a very traditional exhibit based display that dealt in equal parts with the local chemical industry and other local history. By 1986 the space in the Old Town Hall was needed for other uses so Catalyst moved to its present location in Gossage Building in the West Bank area of Widnes. Dr. Gordon Rintoul, who became the new director in 1987, brought about a change of policy concerning the exhibition concept. He wanted to get away from exclusively local matters and focus on chemistry in everyday life. Later, in 1991, it was also he who initiated the project for a new gallery in which visitors would be able to explore aspects of the chemical industry by "See,Touch,Do" exhibits after the examples of the Exploratorium in San Francisco and the Bristol Exploratory, a predecessor to At-Bristol.


The collection was started in 1982 with the setting up of the Halton Chemical Industry Museum Project as a project funded by the Manpower Services Commission and Halton Borough Council. In the first instance, a collecting policy was not in place and collection of items was rather indiscriminate which resulted in a diverse early collection of items.[citation needed]

The collection consists of nearly 8,000 individually numbered items and groups including objects, archive material and photographs. However, in terms of physical numbers of individual items and items within groups, the number of items approaches 10,000. If the individual research files from the ICI General Chemicals Group are also included then the collection would exceed 35,000 items. The objects range from test tubes to a 20-ton cast iron caustic soda finishing vessel and the archives include company documents of all kinds, product brochures and general ephemera. The photographic collection documents products and processes, company history, social activity and local history. Catalyst has also collected some local social history objects which have helped to give a human context to the collection as a whole. The collection has concentrated, in terms of industry, on the salt-based chemical industries of Merseyside, South Lancashire and North and Mid Cheshire, along with other chemical industries that have arisen in these areas. The social history collection has been confined to Widnes and Runcorn and its environs.[21]

The collection is available for research purposes to members of the public.[citation needed]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Catalyst Science Discovery Centre, Catalyst, retrieved 2008-03-23 
  2. ^ a b Emsley, John (1989-08-19), "The wonderful world of Widnes: Catalyst, the museum of the chemicals industry, Widnes, Cheshire", New Scientist (Reed Business Information), retrieved 2008-03-23 
  3. ^ Kazan chemical museum
  4. ^ Farsman Mineralogy Museum
  5. ^ "Chemical Industry of the USSR" museum
  6. ^ James, Tony (1992-08-15), "Review: Catalyst loses its modesty and comes of age", New Scientist (Reed Business Information), retrieved 2008-03-23 
  7. ^ Hardie, David William Ferguson (1950), A History of the Chemical Industry of Widnes, London: Imperial Chemical Industries Limited, General Chemicals Division, p. 56, ASIN B0007JBZRQ 
  8. ^ a b Crosland, Lesley (May 1989). CATALYST A Museum For Change in STEAM magazine
  9. ^ Letter from the director Dr Gordon Rintoul to Mr TT Young, Chief Leisure & Operational Services Officer, Halton Borough Council, 7 December 1988.
  10. ^ Pollard, Richard; Nikolaus Pevsner (2006), The Buildings of England: Lancashire: Liverpool and the South-West, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, p. 650, ISBN 0-300-10910-5 
  11. ^ a b About us, Catalyst, retrieved 2008-03-23 
  12. ^ Education, Catalyst, retrieved 2008-03-24 
  13. ^ Workshops, Catalyst, retrieved 2013-01-07 
  14. ^ Science Club, Catalyst, retrieved 2008-03-24 
  15. ^ Collections and Historical Documentation, Catalyst, retrieved 2008-03-23 
  16. ^ Crosland, Lesley (May 1989), CATALYST A Museum For Change in STEAM magazine
  17. ^ Partners, Catalyst, retrieved 2008-03-24 
  18. ^ Friends of Catalyst, Catalyst, retrieved 2008-03-24 
  19. ^ a b Catalyst Press Pack Info Updated 2008
  20. ^ Internal Catalyst document: Notes on CATALYST Development for Rainhill Rlwy. Soc. 11 October 1993
  21. ^ Catalyst 2008 Acquisition & Disposal Policy, Catalyst, UK.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 53°21′07″N 2°44′01″W / 53.35184°N 2.73364°W / 53.35184; -2.73364