We don’t need two Powerhouses – we need a science museum

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The Premier is now considering Sydney having two Powerhouse museums – one for the city and one for the west – in the face of continuing controversy about moving the museum to Parramatta.

I know that right now the mainstream controversy revolves around the costs involved in a move and Paramatta’s need for a cultural institution, but there’s another issue here: Do we need two Powerhouse Museums? My argument is ‘no, we do not’, what we need is a proper science museum to complement the Museum of Applied Arts that is the Powerhouse these days.

A proper science museum would focus on scientific principles, would showcase Australia’s research in-depth, and would have oodles of hands-on displays. Think Exploratorium with an Australian twist. Now, the Powerhouse does some of this – but it’s lost in a fog of other stuff which makes it feel like an add-on after the displays of dress design and the Wiggles.

The Powerhouse has some great engineering stuff, but it tends to just sit there. Don’t just display a big steam engine, explain it and use it to teach and learn. Put time and effort into making displays current and activities work – and make them relevant.

Or don’t go down the road of big things at all. Make a fully hands-on museum like the Creativity Museum in San Francisco. That has the huge advantage of not being terribly expensive to put together and being a direct lineal descendant of the Powerhouse’s Thinkspace.

Think Thinkspace expanded and focused on – a makerspace, with creativity and innovation at its core. That would be an exciting new institution that would pull in locals and tourists alike.

Yes, there are obviously some issues. First, is that what I’m describing might well not tick the boxes on Parrmatta’s need for a key cultural institution. Answer: move the existing Powerhouse displays out to Parammatta as an Australian version of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum – a museum of art and design that fits everyone’s definition of a cultural institution. Second, what I’m dreaming of is pretty close to the wonderful Questacon in Canberra. Answer: Sydney needs something local and a bit of coordination could make them complimentary rather than competitive. Third, is there the money for this? Answer: Something like the Creativity Museum is more about clever thinking and people than wildly expensive set up costs – you don’t need iconic stuff, more a big space and some clever lateral approaches to what you do – it would cost, but nothing like a traditional museum.

At the end of the day, you can debate my dream. But here’s what I think is inarguable: Sydney, a world-class first world city, does not have a science museum. We have a natural history collection museum that’s doing a good job of mutating into a display museum, and we have a museum of applied arts and design (with some add-on science) that is just struggling. We do not have a science museum. Most other top-ranking cities in the world have all of those things, and more – and that’s what we should be aspiring to.

What we lack in the debate about the Powerhouse is a goal that’s not driven by real estate prices or Parramatta’s ambition to have a cultural institution of any sort (which pretty much comes back to real estate prices). We need a goal that’s driven by identifying the gap in what we offer as a city. That gap is a science museum and that’s what we should be aiming for. How we achieve it then becomes a useful discussion with a context around it.

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