Jan 152015

DSC_000001The Nicholson Museum continues to please with its latest exhibition.

I don’t know who came up with the idea of using LEGO to illustrate the ancient world at the Nicholson Museum, but I do know that it was a fabulous idea.

The Nicholson’s latest offering is LEGO Pompeii, and it’s great. I love the way that the creators have woven millennia of history into a single diorama. So daily Roman life rubs shoulders with archaeologists digging the ruins and even Dr Who subtly visiting. The use of LEGO makes the whole thing both intriguing and fun.

Of course the danger in this approach lies in losing sight of the reality. For example my Senior Junior Archaeology Correspondents were scandalised by the depiction of lava beneath the city streets which, as they were keen to point out, is not how the eruption occurred. But that danger is balanced by excellent poster-boards of information surrounding the LEGO exhibit.

Even without the LEGO diorama, the Nicholson is worth visiting for its small, but always fascinating, collection. Although the Nicholson is small, it continues to punch well above its weight with a creative and innovative approach to an ancient subject matter.

Their website has all the details on planning a visit.

See also: The Nicholson is a jolly fine museum.

Nov 212014

museum applied arts and sciencePart of Rose Hiscock’s vision as the new Director of the Powerhouse Museum includes: “A brand strategy is in development to articulate the positioning, brand values and visual identity for the Powerhouse’s network of venues.”

I’m guessing we’re beginning to see the product of that strategy in the latest missives from the Museum. Where the core branding used to be the Powerhouse itself, it now appears to be shifting to the underlying Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS). The Powerhouse is referred to as the somewhat unwieldy  “Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences’ Powerhouse Museum“. The seems to be a gentle shift, because the wording isn’t consistent across recent marketing materials, but it’s definitely there.

There’s a lot to be said for this approach given the underlying MAAS covers more than just the Powerhouse; the Sydney Observatory stands out. There’s a shiny website to describe what it’s all about at www.maas.museum. The MAAS 2020 vision is rather nicely set out there and all seems very laudable.

I can’t help but wish, though, as I do whenever I write about the Powerhouse that they would direct some time and effort into sorting out their current displays rather than focusing on exhibitions that may bring in paying heads but seem to have only a tenuous connection to their core purpose.

Nov 202014

powerhouse circusThe Powerhouse Museum has announced its latest exhibition with tickets on sale now for members.

The Circus Factory invites you to “Step into the ring of one of the most delightfully daring, spectacularly spectacular feats of showmanship, curiosity, absurdity and intrigue at Circus Factory”.

The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences’ Powerhouse Museum will explode over summer with Circus Factory, a program of spectacular proportions, featuring all the wonder of the circus with live performance, sideshow favourites, local and international exhibits and vintage toys and novelties.

Explorers of all ages will journey through a world of imagination and discovery, crafted in collaboration with renowned French scenographer Gérard Cholot and designer Alban Le Henry, testing their skill and showmanship. Visitors can:

  • Ride a fairground carousel that is 100 years old
  • Test yourself with the strongman and laughing clowns
  • See over 60 circus costumes and props featuring ringmasters, animal trainers, acrobats and clowns
  • Wonder at hilarious kinetic sculptures created by David Archer
  • See photos and objects never seen before from Australia’s very own Wirth’s Circus
  • Throw yourself into a carnival world created by French scenographer Gérard Cholot and designer Alban Le Henry

During school holidays there will also be live performances from acclaimed Australian contemporary circus troupe, Circa.
Although there’s free entry for kids, it costs $25 for an adult Powerhouse member and $35 for on-members. See here for all the hurdy-gurdy details.

Oct 292014

powerhouseThe Powerhouse Museum should not be moved to Western Sydney.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports this morning that Infrastructure NSW wants to move some or all of the Museum from its Ultimo base. The idea is to move it to somewhere in the Western Suburbs on the basis that most of the State’s arts funding goes into the CBD rather than out West where the weight of the population lies.

While I can’t say I’ve been in agreement often with the directions taken by the Powerhouse in the last few years (see here and here for example) I am in complete agreement that this is a really poor idea. The Museum’s Director, Rose Hiscock, rightly points out that “”You can’t just pick up a museum and move it.” My arguments with the Powerhouse have revolved around the lack of maintenance and innovative thinking which leads to Sydney not really having a viable science museum: A vibrant, educational and engaging science museum is one of the hallmarks of a progressive modern city. The idea of not having a real science museum readily accessible in the centre of the city is simply awful.

Hiscock suggests, rather than moving the Museum, using the opportunity to create a “a new interactive science centre as a secondary western Sydney location for the museum”. While a world-class interactive science museum is something Sydney really needs it’s hard to see why you would attach such a beast to the Powerhouse if it is sited in Parramatta. To set up an interactive science museum like the Exploratorium in San Francisco you need a big space and innovative thinking rather than iconic displays – so beyond shared back-office infrastructure it’s a little hard to see what the Powerhouse would bring to the party (although to be fair, if they let the Thinkspace people have their head good things might happen).

The Powerhouse should not be moved, it should not even be fiddled with or distracted from its main game which, at the moment, ought to revolve around getting its current activities right – until they can fix their broken educational displays, I have little enthusiasm for them doing anything else. According to the Museum’s latest annual report, 2012/13 attendance was down by more 17.6 per cent on its 10-year average. Moving the Museum wont fix that; changing it, improving it and fixing the bits that are actually broken will.

Put directly: Sydney ought to have a world-class science museum in its CBD. Realistically that has to be built around the Powerhouse and  resources should be put into making the Powerhouse great before anything is done that might dilute its efforts.

Oct 012014

museum-of-human-disease-unswWe’ll get to the zombies in a minute, but first some background.

The University of NSW is home to the Museum of Human Disease which is a museum that proudly earns its place on the list of the 10 weirdest museums in the World. Imagine rooms with walls lined with shelves and on those shelves are carefully preserved human organs, diseased human organs. A visit is, it must be said, a bit confronting: The combination of being surrounded by so many bits of dead people, some of which are obscure internal organs but many are readily recognisable as a foot or a finger, and seeing so many diseases leaves you both a bit creeped out and with a mildly distressing sense of your own mortality. I defy any thinking person to run off and have a drink after seeing a liver suffering from cirrhosis, or to be blasé about smallpox after seeing an infected limb.

But I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the Museum is all about gazing at bits of dead people. Quite the opposite. First, if you steel yourself, the exhibits are fascinating. More importantly, the staff make the whole place absolutely brilliant.  At the moment the educational theme is zombies and visitors can work their way through a series of puzzles identifying various diseases and working out who the zombie is from a list of candidates. It’s a great way to introduce students to diseases and diagnosis.

For further interactivity you can do a dissection. We’ve done things like this in several museums around the world, but this was far and away the best. It was an absolutely brilliant combination of the fascinating and the educational. The patient and knowledgeable teacher took a wide range of kids through dissecting a heart and a brain (sheep not human)  – which was interesting and completely pertinent in the context of the Museum. On our visit there were about 10 kids ranging from 6-13 also visiting and while they occasionally evinced some squeamishness, there’s no question they all learnt a lot.

If there’s one thing I’d like to see done differently in the Museum, it would be that they put some healthy organs side-by-side with the unhealthy ones. For a lay-person, it’s difficult to appreciate the ravages of the various diseases on the organs displayed when you don’t have a comparison point. Apparently there is a room full of healthy organs elsewhere in the University, but it’s not open to the public; so maybe even some comparison photos would help.

I highly recommend the Museum of Human Disease if you want to see something a little (OK, a lot) different. The zombie theme runs for a while yet; and is then being replaced by cyborgs for which the clever Museum education team have some wonderful plans.

And just to back all that up from the young person’s point of view, there’s this report filed by our Senior Junior Zombie Specialist, Declan P:

The museum of human disease is unusual, earning it the 9th spot in the world’s weirdest museums. But on top of that, it is cool. It features hundreds of diseased organs which are amazing to look at in disgust. They’re harsh and ugly, but also awesome to see and give you a sense of what diseases are actually like.

Though that is the main part of the museum, there is also the hunt to find the cases of disease. Basically, there are some captives, each with different diseases and one of them is a zombie. You have to find out who the zombie is and also what the others have caught. Once you have figured it out, you can check on a computer to see if you’ve been succesful.

Then you get to dissection. First you get a sheep’s heart to dissect, and you find out a lot about the heart and all its different sections. Actually cutting up a heart there makes the experience of learning about it much more real, and you can even pump it with your hands. It is simply a great way of learning about the heart. Then you take a sheep’s brain and dissect that (because…. zombies). It is squishy and easy to break but it gives you a better picture of what brains actually look like.

Of all the museums we have been to with dissection experiences, The Exploratorium and The Smithsonian to name two, this was by far the best dissection we have ever done.

I love this museum and definitely recommend it to everyone who gets the chance to come for an hour or two.

Jul 092014

Scratchlego5-220x90I was lucky enough to spend yesterday sitting in on a holiday workshop offered by Thinkspace at the Powerhouse Museum and it has once again driven home to me how fortunate we are to have Thinkspace in Sydney.

The two-day course on game making with Unity 3D was engaging, pushed the kids just far enough and gave them a real start in creating games with Unity – and it’s just the sort of thing you can’t find anywhere else. Led by the wonderful James, the kids learnt how to create and manipulate virtual worlds, and got a smattering of exposure to Javascript while they were at it. I especially liked the approach of giving the kids pre-packaged code and then teaching them how to recognise and manipulate it – thus mostly avoiding the dreaded typing errors and giving them vary quick gratification for their efforts. James’ obvious enthusiasm and skill really pulled the kids on through even the more complicated parts of the programming process; and he adroitly steered the kids away from the inevitable desire to weaponise the games – an achievement that shows real skill in my view.

Every time I see Thinkspace in action it reminds me what a jewel it is in the otherwise tarnished crown that is the Powerhouse. I’d love to see Thinkspace expanded into on-going activities like the way the Children’s Creativity Museum in San Francisco operates: You can walk in and any day have access to cool activities and learning. The beauty of an approach that centers on teaching and interaction is that the limiting factor is staff and it’s an area where far greater use can be made of volunteers and interns. As an example, one of the great things at the Creativity Museum is the Innovation Lab, basically a room full of piles of cast off items – egg cartons, cardboard rolls, bits of cloth, and so on. Kids can pull a task out of a hat and create a solution to the problem or idea presented using the things in the room: Like a Maker Space for kids without the dangerous bits. All you need to do that is a room, some imagination, a pile of recycled stuff, and one volunteer to watch over the thing and tell the kids how well they have done. That sort of though ought to be right up the Powerhouse’s street and Thinkspace is already leading the way albeit sporadically and virtually.

We really need the Thinkspace activities, and more like them, to be available outside of relatively expensive holiday courses. You can’t teach Unity on the fly; but basic circuitry, clever Minecraft stuff, creative use of materials can all be done in the context of walk-in activities. How much more fulfilling would it be to have kids (and adults) build a basic brush bot than having them stare in confusion at the Powerhouse’s broken robotics exhibits?

Anyway, the point is that Thinkspace is the closest we come to getting access to opportunities for that sort of innovation and creativity in Sydney. They’ve got wonderful things going on – from the courses with real bite to them through to the huge muti-wall screen for kids to create Minecraft worlds on. We just need more, lots more of this goodness.

Image: Powerhouse Museum.

Jun 242014

Childrens-Museum-IndianapolBen Newsome is a lucky man. He’s spending a few months on a Churchill Fellowship wandering the world and looking at science museums.

Newsome is the founder of Fizzics Education so he has a history with teaching kids about science. That puts him in an excellent position to judge what can and can’t work in attracting people to science museums.

While I admit to being a bit jealous of Newsome’s trip it’s not so much because of where he’s going. My family has a history of visiting science museums around the World, so I’m in no position to claim jealousy on that front. No, but I am a bit jealous just because Newsome gets to go behind the scenes at some of the coolest museums on the planet. Reading his blog makes you realise how many extraordinary opportunities there out there.

Following Newsome’s travels around the world on his blog just drives home how many interesting and innovative science museums there are around the world – and, by extension, how poorly served we are here in Australia. Perhaps Ben might be able to help with that upon his return.

Ben’s Science Outreach on the Road blog is here.

Image: Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, Ben Newsome.