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the heat is on

Stephen Feber has a tough mission - to mastermind a successful National Lottery-backed tourist attraction in the North. But he is not daunted: he believes the Magna project's mix of fun and education will prove a winner by kenneth powell. photograph by sh

Having launched the Magna project (page 30), Stephen Feber, Magna's chief executive, may already be looking for the next challenge. 'I'll be here just as long as there is a job to be done, things to develop, ' he says. 'I enjoy making things happen, not running organisations that are already a success.'

The next year or so will be the test of Magna's ability to succeed where some other worthy but short-lived National Lottery-backed projects in the North have failed. It needs to pull in at least 250,000 visitors, paying a standard entrance fee of £5.99 (concessions £3.50) to remain on course.

Feber has no doubts that the target will be met. 'There are 150,000 vehicles passing the site every day on the M1, ' he says. 'A mile away at Meadowhall is one of the most successful retail and leisure centres in Britain, visited by 32 million people a year. If we can get just 1 per cent of them to come to Magna, we've succeeded.'

Magna has its origins in Rotherham council's plans to establish a steel heritage centre in the former Templeborough Works, 'the anvil of South Yorkshire', as it was once described.

Opened in 1917, the works closed in 1993. The heritage centre project could not be funded and the idea of a science adventure centre was developed as an alternative, with an independent educational charity at the helm. This proved to be the opening to major lottery and other public funds.

Feber is complimentary about Rotherham's supportive role in the project, but confesses to be 'frustrated with the local authority scene - the Lottery has created freedom of action to achieve great things'.

Feber was born in Walthamstow, east London, the son of an engineer: 'There was a family tradition of making things, ' he says.

Feber's early career was marked by false starts - as sociologist, photographer and bike salesman, all callings which he seems to have enjoyed.

Then came a period working with the National Trust - 'I was never actually employed by them' - at Sudbury Hall and at Quarry Bank Mill at Styal in Cheshire.

He was development director for the Eureka! children's museum in Halifax, then head of museums and galleries in York. He quit York to run the World of Glass at St Helens. 'I've done three industries; cotton, glass and now steel, ' he says. 'The difference is that you can, to some extent, demonstrate cotton- and glass-making, but you could never open a working steel mill to the public.'

Feber stresses that Magna is not a museum; there are no permanent collections, no overriding curatorial agenda.

The project is about education and entertainment - it aims to infuse enjoyment into the process of learning about science and technology.

The education programme is one of the lynchpins of the venture.Magna also aims to break down perceived barriers between science and the arts; a number of major art installations are planned.

Feber's formula for success is as follows: 'You have to have a clear idea behind the project, ' he insists. 'We've got the themes of earth, air, fire and water. You have to have plenty of interactive displays of very high quality - we want young people to see science as fun.

'You have to learn from successful theme parks and not be snooty about emulating them.

'The way Magna uses the contrast between compressed spaces and huge expanses is an example. There has to be a sense of exploration and discovery and of involvement.

'Finally, you have to have the 'wow factor'.We certainly have that - the building is an attraction in itself.'

Wilkinson Eyre, Feber says, was a natural choice for the project. 'I knew I could work with them - it's been a very interactive client/architect relationship, ' he says.

Feber, who lives in Manchester, had been impressed by the practice's Hulme Arch and Dyson factory. 'Their approach seemed to be highly creative, but not that of a prima donna. That wouldn't have worked here.'

One key move in the evolution of the project was a tie-up with the Stadium Group, which runs the Meadowhall Centre.

This produced financial investment but, more importantly, support personnel who helped to get Magna off the ground.

Meadowhall has been blamed for accelerating the decline of traditional town centres in the area and is the epitome of the pre-Gummer, out-of-town retail centre.

Feber, however, sees Meadowhall in a positive light. 'Some people seem to blame the decline of manufacturing on places like Meadowhall, ' he says. 'The old industries, like mass production of steel and heavy engineering, were already on the way out - they won't come back.

'Meadowhall employs lots of local people and is enjoyed by millions more - it is a leisure experience. So, to be honest, is Magna, and we'll be employing up to 150 people on this site.'

A large video display in Meadowhall will promote the attractions of Magna, and Feber is convinced that many Meadowhall visitors will be seduced. Most of them will arrive by car. It would be possible to provide tram and mainline rail links, but the investment would be considerable and has not yet been forthcoming. The only existing public transport link is by bus.

Where Magna differs from many Lottery-backed attractions, Feber stresses, is in its scope for development and change: 'We're not hemmed in, we've got 32 acres of land. There's a business park next door and we're providing land for a nature reserve.

The building itself has huge potential for change - we've hardly started.'

For Stephen Feber, Magna is 'part of the regeneration business'. Britain's first science adventure centre emerges, in Feber's words, as an adventure in its own right. Its blend of populism and high style, sophistication and showmanship is well judged. Against the odds, this is one Lottery project which could be a long-term winner.

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