Museum visitors in Manchester, UK are spending the half-term holiday covered in purple dye and getting to grips with the chemical industry

Museum visitors in Manchester, UK are spending the half-term holiday covered in purple dye and getting to grips with the origins of the chemical industry.

The museum of science and industry in Manchester (MSIM) has a week of hands-on activities to celebrate the 150th anniversary of William Perkin’s discovery of the purple dye mauveine while he was trying to make quinine from coal tar.

’We’re using the Perkin story as a way to engage lots of different audiences,’ said Ian Griffin, MSIM director. ’The idea is to show that the process of science is one that you don’t have to have a huge research team to be able to make fundamental discoveries.’

As well as close-quarters viewings of Perkin’s artefacts, an actor is on site giving dramatic interpretations of Perkin’s life, artists are there explaining textiles and using the colour purple and younger visitors have the chance to try purple printing and colouring; ’It’s a washable dye that we use,’ explained Jan Hargreaves, senior archivist at MSIM, ’we’re not using the genuine stuff; it’s probably a bit too toxic for children to play with.’

The Perkin collection came to MSIM in 1999 from its home at ICI’s organic dyes site at Blackley, north Manchester, which was being scaled down. The collection includes a dye-stained section of Perkin’s laboratory floor and his original notes. ’You see, all of a sudden, these purple fingerprints on the notebooks,’ Griffin told Chemistry World.

Over the week up to 15 000 people will learn Perkin’s story. ’We’re not going to change people’s lives,’ said Griffin, ’but the people that come to the museum this week at least gain an understanding of the person who did some work, how they did it and how it changed our perception of the world. The purple dye was very important; it really did create the organic chemistry industry.’

Bill Griffith, from Imperial College London, and a keen historian, agrees. ’This exhibition, a wonderful one for children and adults alike, tells us the inspiring story of William Perkin, who was only 18 when he discovered the beautiful dye mauve 150 years ago, and so started the whole British chemical industry,’ he told Chemistry World. ’It shows us all that learning about chemistry - a really exciting subject - when young can lead to great discoveries.’

Katharine Sanderson