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.

 

Jun 172014
 

Sydney Mini Maker FaireThe Sydney Mini Maker Faire is calling for exhibitors. The Faire will run on the 16th and 17th of August at the Powerhouse Museum. Last year’s Faire, the first in Sydney, was a wonderful event with great exhibitors and a friendly, engaged crowd of spectators.

Applications for exhibitors close 5pm Friday the 4th of July. The broad details are:

Maker Faire is a family-friendly showcase of invention, creativity and resourcefulness, and a celebration of the world-wide Maker movement. A place where people show what they are making and share what they are learning.

Maker Faires are primarily designed to be forward-looking, showcasing Makers who are exploring new forms and new technologies. But it’s not just for the novel in technical fields; Maker Faire features innovation and experimentation across the spectrum of science, engineering, art, performance and craft.

Applications are open to individuals, groups, schools and other organisations, whether you’re interested in just demonstrating your invention or perhaps selling it as well! There is no application fee for the 2014 Sydney Mini Maker Faire, though each successful application will be required to pay a $200 project fee as part of their participation in the Faire. This fee includes Public Liability Insurance if required and is less if you possess your own Insurance.

For the full gory details see the website here.

May 232014
 

PH_membersIf you have a Powerhouse Museum membership pay very careful attention when you renew.

My membership was set to expire on 31 May 2014. Wanting to make sure I didn’t have a gap in membership, I went and renewed the membership in April. I opted for another three-year membership.

A few weeks later a letter arrived accompanied by a new membership card. The membership was only for one-year. I phoned up the Museum and explained I had renewed for three years and had received only one year. They would fix it.

A couple of weeks pass and, yesterday, I receive a second letter and card. This one is a three year membership but it is set to expire on 30 April 2017, instead of 31 May when my current membership expires – so somewhere I had lost a month from my original membership.

On the phone again. The people I spoke to were lovely, but explained that the system works that way. The membership runs from the month of the date you renew in, not from the end of your membership. If I had renewed in March I would have lost two months and so on. Now that’s not just wrong, it’s illegal. I was not a new subscriber, I was renewing my membership and in anyone’s terms that means that the renewal has to run from the date of the old one expiring. Anything else is a rip-off.

As I noticed, and phoned up, the Powerhouse is adjusting the renewal date and issuing yet another card. But ‘the system’ is not apparently something they can just change, what I experienced is built-in to the way the membership system works. So if you are renewing your membership, pay very careful attention to what you get.

May 022014
 

The Powerhouse Museum is restructuring, shedding 55 of its 270 staff in order to “consider its future and put a structure in place to achieve that”

According to the Herald, the Powerhouse’s director Rose Hiscock said, “We have briefed the minister [Nationals MP Troy Grant] about the need to work responsibly as an organisation and this decision will allow us to spend money on exhibitions to bring people through the doors.”

Here’s my problem with this: it appears to be part of the ongoing focus on exhibitions. There doesn’t appear to be a focus on making the underlying museum a fabulous, properly maintained place to visit.

Look I appreciate the need to make money to keep a place like the Powerhouse operating. But if all that the Powerhouse is focusing on is hosting marginally relevant exhibitions it might as well just be an exhibition hall. Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, The Wiggles – I know they make money but what do they have to do with applied science and technology? The recent exhibition with the clearest tie in was Wallace and Gromit which was just so poorly executed that it was embarrassing.

Sydney doesn’t need another art gallery or exhibition space. There are many places that can host commercially exploitative movie tie-ins. What Sydney needs is a science and technology museum that’s properly maintained and driven with some vision – and that vision needs to be about the core property as much as ancillary exhibitions that pull people through the door but could happen anywhere. It doesn’t take endless amounts of money to make a museum successful; it does take imagination, and enthusiasm for the museum’s core business. Sure, more exhibitions may be a necessity, but they shouldn’t be what the Powerhouse is all about.

Will this restructure deliver that? Well, that remains to be seen. A great deal comes down to how you measure success – is it just about how the money is made, or is it also about how cleverly the money is spent? I’d love to be a fly on the wall and see what the Board of Trustees is actually aiming it. I continue to hope that someone will start thinking about how to do fabulous things with an amazing collection and an inspiring series of spaces.

See also: Will someone please show the Powerhouse where to put the batteries

Mar 212014
 

thinkspaceautumnThinkspace has once again got a wonderful range of courses available for kids during the school holidays.

There are some old favourites but also new courses in making games in Unity and Stencyl. There are several courses just for girls  and some interesting electronic courses in addition to the programming ones.

Thinkspace has really been a pioneer in offering such fascinating courses. The good news is, though, that other options are now opening up too. We just got a flyer for CodeCamp.com.au which is running a holiday course on building iPhone apps.

Such a lot of cool opportunities for the school holidays.