Robot arm in 2010
The Powerhouse Museum is like a cargo cult object that’s fallen into the hands of savages who have no idea where to put the batteries to make the thing work. And so they polish it and make it shiny, while inside the mechanism rusts and decays.
I know I’m not being entirely fair, but you see I’ve tried to be fair to the Powerhouse for years and things just don’t seem to get better.
What am I complaining about? What is the bee in my steam-punky top hat? Things don’t work. Lots of displays don’t work and many of those that do are tired and decrepit. Even the explanatory text is often out-of-date or lauds cutting-edge discoveries that have been surpassed in the decade during which the display-cards have been gathering dust.
The icon of entropy in the museum must be the small robotics exhibition. There’s the little machine that’s supposed to show that robots can walk. Does anyone even remember that the treadmill it sits on was supposed to move? Or has anyone considered that there are cheap toys that now do a better job of walking than this maimed mechanical creature? Just buy 20 Hexbugs and let them run round the display case!
Then there’s the centrepiece display, the industrial robot arm going through its entertaining motions without the props that give them any meaning. If it’s not going to have any meaning, just turn it off. Or fix it for goodness sake. Kids still come up and press the buttons; a new generation not realising that there used to be props that match the music and blocks that got moved about. There can be no better symbol of where the Powerhouse has lost its way.
To be clear here the path was not lost recently. I’ve mentioned that poor robot in letters to the Museum Director, the Board and even to the responsible Minister over the last eight years. And yet something that could be fixed with a mop head, or replaced by some kids with a Lego robotics kit, remains broken. And it’s not the only display that doesn’t work, not by a long shot: It is that slow slide into decay among the core educational displays, while the corporate focus appears to remains fixed on high-profile fripperies, that concerns me.
There’s a new Director now and that always comes with new hope. I’m sure there are many internal changes being made, but the thing I get to see as a member and visitor is being hit again and again (four times so far) with the same piece of market research that asks me whether I’ve been to popular music festivals. That isn’t making me think that things are on the up for Sydney’s science museum.
Look, I understand that a Museum needs to make money. But the problem here isn’t just about money – it’s about imagination. In 2011 I travelled around the World with my family, visiting science museums as we went. The thing that struck us repeatedly was that a little imagination can go an awfully long way; and so some of the best museums were the smaller ones with lots of interactivity, with people to explain, or just with a focus on every display working properly. It doesn’t take a lot of money to make those robots meaningful again, it takes will and imagination.
I live in hope for the Powerhouse. May that hope not turn out to be as futile as the savages blindly worshipping the shiny found object or that poor industrial robot going endlessly through its meaningless motions.