Scienceworks

Tim Sherratt, review of Scienceworks, in Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 9, no. 4, December 1993, pp. 387-388 .

 

As a suburban teenager, one of the highlights of my school holidays was a trip into ‘town’. This expedition into the wilds of central Melbourne always included a wander around the Science Museum, then housed snugly with the National Museum and the State Library behind the imposing columns of 328 Swanston Street.

Naturally I pressed all the buttons I could, making all the engines start and the models come to life. I played noughts and crosses against a ‘computer’ that regularly cheated. But most of all I just stood in front of the glass-fronted cases and marvelled at the collections — the rows and rows of swords, the wax apples, the radioactive sample with its chattering geiger counter. Between visits I embroidered complex daydreams where the deserted building was mine and all its treasures lay waiting.

The Science Museum is now a division of the Museum of Victoria, with a new site, a new building and a new name — Scienceworks. The long queues awaiting entry each weekend are evidence that Scienceworks, opened in March 1992, is a great success. It’s fun, and it’s informative, and everyone should go, ok?

Spotswood, one of Melbourne’s inner-western industrial suburbs, provides an ideal location for Scienceworks. The factories surround the museum like an industrial theme park, an authentic landscape where people and technology jostle for space and power. Walking from the station you pass a glass factory where red-glowing bottles can be glimpsed as they are propelled along the production line. Look up and the massive Westgate Bridge looms oppressively near.

The new Scienceworks building is itself styled along industrial lines, but the site has its own measure of Victorian grandeur — a disused sewerage pumping station constructed in the 1890s. Here visitors can view the steam engines (currently under restoration) that propelled Melbourne’s muck along the main sewer to Werribee. Interpretative signs tell not just of the technological achievements involved, but of the disease and sanitation problems of ‘Marvellous Smellbourne’, and of the experiences of workers at the pumping station — including those who had to keep the pumps clear of debris! Sydney may have its Powerhouse, but Melbourne has its ..umm… Pumphouse?

The new Scienceworks building has both permanent and temporary exhibition spaces. The four permanent exhibitions are Inventions, Energy, Travel and Materials. Each of these draws on the museum’s extensive collections to demonstrate not just scientific principles, but the role of science and technology in our everyday lives. Of course this latter phrase is one that slips readily from the tongues of science communicators, but how do you encourage people to make this connection?

One way is by using familiar, local examples. The Materials exhibition includes sections on the Bionic Ear and the Plastic Banknote. A cable tram and the obligatory Holden feature in Travel. The Atomic Absorption Spectrophotometer, which for some time sat forlornly in a corner of the entrance hall at Swanston Street, now occupies a more appropriate position in Inventions, together with the Black Box Flight Recorder and a periscopic rifle, invented in the trenches during World War One. Another old favourite from the former site is Carl Nordstrom’s detailed models of the Victorian goldfields, constructed in the late 1850s, which are used in the mining section of Materials. In some cases the stories behind the objects could be developed more, nonetheless they do provide reference points where visitors can make connections with their own experience.

The recognition factor is also cleverly exploited in another section of Inventions. Here levers, pulleys, and inclined planes are illustrated not just by hands-on exhibits, but by archival photographs called up on touch screens — what we see are the abstract principles at work on farms, in factories or homes. Visitors can begin to recognise pulleys or levers in their own life’s history — ‘Grandma had one just like that!’ In a similar way, the Energy exhibition challenges you to provide the energy for some ‘old-fashioned’ technologies, such as a manually-powered washing-machine and a hand-saw.

Other more critical connections can be made by focussing on issues related to technological development. This is most successfully achieved in the Travel exhibition, which asks visitors to consider, amongst other things, the impact of ‘Fordism’ and the nature of life on the assembly-line. Likewise, environmental issues are raised in both Materials and Energy.

What is lacking is a window onto the scientific workplace. There is little attempt to allow visitors to gain a feeling for the actual practise of science. ‘Performance science’ is presented in the Scienceworks theatre but this is altogether different from life in the lab. The Museum of Victoria is itself a working scientific institution, though you would hardly know it from the displays at Scienceworks. Presumably this is because of the separation of the Science and Technology and Natural History Divisions within the Museum structure, but surely there are ways in which the scientific work of the Museum can be displayed within the Scienceworks setting? Having been fortunate enough to have toured some of the natural history collections while they were still at the Swanston Street site, I can attest to the fascination of ‘raw science’ — science observed and experienced, rather than interpreted.

This sense of fascination relates to what the Senior Curator of Scienceworks, Martin Hallett, has described as the ‘evocative’ as opposed to ‘evidential’ function of museum objects. This ‘evocative’ role is, I believe, important in allowing people to perceive the significance of science and technology within the context of their own lives. This becomes clearer when Scienceworks is contrasted with the growing band of interactive science centres that supposedly allow you to ‘explore’ science. The types of exploration that can actually take place are constrained by the programmed nature of the exhibits. The expectation is that you will learn, not feel. Objects, however, can embody a wide range of messages, which need not be articulated for them to be effective. One Scienceworks exhibit that sticks in my mind was simply a display case in Energy full of electrical appliances — heaters, irons, tea-makers. Freed from any evidential function these appliances trigger personal responses — as with the wax apples and swords I remember so clearly. It is not so much the scientific content as the contact that is important. We can’t expect that science museums will suddenly make everything clear — ‘Oh yeah, science, I understand that’ — but they can encourage us to not understand science and technology in a meaningful way. We might not be able to explain the science, but we’ll have made some deep-seated connection with it.

History has an important role to play here and it is significant that Scienceworks has appointed a Curator of History of Technology, Richard Gillespie. By populating the scientific and technological landscape with people, issues, events, questions and problems, history opens up an intellectual and emotional space around the facts and theories. Is this a different sort of history, or history for a different audience? As the debate over the meaning of ‘public’ history continues, perhaps it is time for historians of Australian science to join the fray and begin to consider what public history means in the context of science and technology. If we are serious in wanting to help people understand the role of science and technology in Australian society and culture, it seems to me that we must allow them space to tell their own stories, to mount their personal exhibitions, to build their own daydreams. This is the space I wandered (wondered?) in as a boy, and I was pleased to find pockets still at Scienceworks.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Tim Sherratt Written by:

I'm a historian and hacker who researches the possibilities and politics of digital cultural collections.

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