The Powerhouse museum in Sydney Australia, and the STAR WARS Identities touring exhibition

If you are in Sydney Australia, have seen all the outdoor options, and/or are at a loss of what to do on a rainy day, I suggest visiting the Powerhouse Museum of applied arts and sciences housed in the converted Ultimo Power Station at 500 Harris Street, especially if you’ve got young kids.

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Initially commissioned in 1899, and opened for use in 1902, the building used to house the power station for electric trams, and was a functioning power plant till 1963.

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An interior shot that gives you a sense of its industrial nature

The Museum’s collection, began with the contents of the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879 (the first World’s Fair to be held in the Southern Hemisphere), and then grew over time… and has been bounced around a number of different locations before finding its exhibition space in this building in 1988, although it is no where large enough to exhibit the entire collection.

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Another interior shot of the Powerhouse Museum

I learned this when blogging about Harry’s Café de Wheels, a 70-year-old Sydney pie-shop chain (as in meat pies) considered so iconic to Sydney that its original food cart is kept on mothballs by the Powerhouse, but not displayed… because they simply haven’t got the room.

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This steam engine train is parked inside the Museum

The first time I was in Sydney, back about a month after my massive concussion, one of my traveling buddy’s girlfriends came to Sydney. One rainy day he took her to the powerhouse, while I stayed in bed resting — the post concussive syndrome was still intense at that point. He had been really excited about taking us because it was one of his favorite memories from having grown up in Sydney, and he wanted to share it with us. When they got back I asked her, out of his ear shot, “so how was it?” And she was like, “it was ok, but not great. I mean it was nice doing it with him cause he got all excited with childhood memories… but … you know…”

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Overall, I have now spent three months total in Sydney, and have deemed it to be on the whole …. underwhelming; and this museum held true to that trend. To borrow a quote from Toptenz.net, “the fact that the Sydney Opera House is such a focal point of the city’s depictions might hint, to the analytical mind, that perhaps this is the case because there is really little else that is all that remarkable in Sydney.” And, as that article also points out, while said Opera House looks amazing from the outside, it has no shortage of design/acoustic flaws on the inside, so you’re not going to want to travel all the way there to enjoy a show when there are so many other better venues, acoustically. That said, while I thought the Powerhouse building was really neat, and I’m a big fan of retrofitting historic buildings to new purposes, the reality is that this building’s layout really isn’t conducive to exhibiting the kind of things they’ve got on show.  And the lack of useful floor space means much of what they own is left sitting in storage, where visitors and locals can’t enjoy it.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_bc6e.jpgThat, and what they have on display is kind of underwhelming. Overall, it doesn’t hold a candle to the Science and Industry museums in Manchester, UK or Chicago, IL … nor to the Exploratorium in San Francisco. If it were in some small town somewhere it would have been a LOT more impressive, but in the middle of a major international city like Sydney, I expected better.

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Maybe the only part of the museum that really excited me in any way was their Mars Lab (a friend of mine actually is the head of designing the experiments that go on the Mars rover so I feel a connection to it) … but otherwise it really didn’t do it for me.

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At the base of the escalator are interactive physics things for kids to play with

HEY, if you’re already there, and you’ve got the kids, and it’s not a good day to go to Bondi Beach, or any other sort of outdoor activity… it’s something to do…There are more than a few areas of the museum that kids will enjoy, and of course its an indoor activity for rainy days

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The playground/cafe area of the museum draws a lot of local birds

Like I said, Sydney, in NOT just MY humble opinion, after a few days quickly becomes kind of a major let down — there are other places you’ll probably want to go BEFORE the Powerhouse. Start googling “overrated cities of the world”, and Sydney shows up on quite a few of those lists.  But the reality is that after about a one week stay, if you’ve been maximizing your time and not just hanging out at the hotel room (like I tend to do) you’re going to start finding yourself so desperate for things to do, and so willing to start scraping the bottom of the barrel so to speak … this is the point when you might want to consider taking the kids to see the Powerhouse Museum…

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One of these things is not like the other… personally I was kind of miffed … I mean WTF?!!!

For the most part, what motivated me to drag my ass to the Powerhouse, — after the bleh review from my friend, was that during my second stay in Sydney it was hosting an exhibition that utilized The Star Wars Movies …  as a platform for educating viewers about how our characters develop overtime as a result of multiple influences including genetic, environmental, choices, mentors, etc., but let’s be real, they had me at Star Wars… anything after that was just icing on the cake.

Rather than being an exhibit which you passively experienced, it was set up like a video game. The educational components utilized characters and paraphernalia on loan from George Lucas’ museum collection, i.e., STUFF that he has that’s left over from the making of the films. In all likelihood it’s part of what would have been housed in a museum in Chicago, had the city (i.e., my people) been willing to stick a museum dedicated to him and his creations in what is a claim to fame public park land that runs the length of the city along the lakefront, but in a location right between the middle of downtown and the water (he refused all other spots, even one along the lake front on the far south side of the city, where development is needed — nope he wanted to be RIGHT in the middle of downtown, where we’ve already got way to much traffic). San Franciscans likewise rejected his demands, which were equally ridiculous, and ultimately he ended up breaking ground in Los Angelus (where he had NOT wanted it to go).

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I’m guess that since it does not yet have a HOME, his collection had been broken up into multiple traveling exhibits, and this is one of them. If it comes to a town near you, you can come and either enjoyed the lesson (which I found a bit boring, and at times questionable in what it was preaching), on how we develop as individuals…. or you can just enjoy looking at all the costumes and stuff… which is what I did.

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Like I said the exhibit was highly interactive. On arrival each of us was given a bracelet, and an audioguide unit, which has a sound-wave dish on it, that we wore on a lanyard over our chests with the dish facing out; each of which came with an earpiece. They then tried to explain to us as a group, how to use it — but that explanation was actually very rushed and confusing (whoever came up with this system deserved a spanking). 

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The source of the sound waves, and you had to stand right where the light was aiming to pick it up

With this system, where you’re standing and what you’re facing determines what you hear — assuming you’re in range of a transmitter, and the audio device you’re wearing is working right… which a lot of the time it wasn’t. If you weren’t listening to individual narratives in your earpiece what you heard was soundtracks from various Star Wars movies playing in the background. That said, it wasn’t one of those systems where you key in a number and a track plays, rather you had to stand exactly where they wanted you to (these sound areas were clearly marked, see below) where your unit would then pick up the audio signal. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2a08.jpg

But there was any number of issues with the sound devices themselves. The first one they gave me didn’t work, as in it was on and I was standing where I needed to be, and I STILL wasn’t hearing anything. They first switched out the earphones, still no good… So they replaced it with a second device … Which worked, but as I walked through the exhibit I was noticing that my sound was glitchy and realized that the wires in the earphones were shorting, so I had to futze with that, wiggling it this way or that… or no sound.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_29d5.jpgSo the devices had issues, AND the attached earphones were also having issues. This was particularly problematic for folks with small children a few of whom were complaining…. VERY loudly, “DAD I can’t hear anything!!” which was annoying the parents — and every one else.

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From what I saw, most parents never really took the time to figure out why their kids could not  hear– as in, “well mine works, so you must be using it wrong.” But of course it wasn’t the kids fault, it was the technology.

IMG_5293What I couldn’t understand was, WHY did the show’s designers went with this old fashioned system of individual units with ear pieces, each of which can break down for a myriad of reasons, rather than a sound system like I saw at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. That one was customer proof and cheaper in the long run because of no issues of wear and tear on the individual units.  If you look carefully at the picture above you’ll see a woman watching a video in the middle of wide open space…  and not wearing any sort of audio device. Where she’s sitting the sound is completely loud, clear and as distinct as if she’d been wearing headphones … YET, from where I stood taking the picture, I heard barely a whisper of that sound. If you look above her head, in the photo, you’ll see a white square hanging from the ceiling… That’s a speaker that produces highly directed sound waves. As in, she can hear it loudly and distinctly from the assigned seating spot (the padded bar) without it annoying someone a few feet away… and NO need for individual units which customers can break.

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The wrist band is placed into the Hexagon (6 sided shape), the shape lights up when activated

As previously mentioned, it was interactive… and to that end we were also all given wristbands similar to what they have at the Disney parks for tracking fast passes. Actually, as I thought about it I realized that these bands were probably exactly like the technology at Disney, which made a lot of sense as the big black rat now owns the Star-Wars franchise, and was most likely deeply involved in the designing of this educational exhibition.  As first you entered the exhibition space you “checked in”

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And then after seeing the intro movie, you’re given a chance to create your character within the Star Wars Universe, picking a race, gender, skin tone, and some basic abilities (like creating a character in role playing video game).

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I chose to be a Togruta, whatever that is

….and then as you walked through the exhibit at each location you were able to customize the character’s development as you made choices about its personality, abilities, and cumulative lifetime experiences

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Among the choices were what occupation your character had

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…. your planet of origin, the abilities you wanted to develop (so for instance you might be born with musical talent, but that doesn’t matter if you don’t work on learning music), the parenting style of your parents, and experiences your character has had that influenced who you become… AFTER each choice, you stand and listen to a video with explanations of how the decisions you just made might impact your identity over time (using star wars characters as examples). And you keep doing this till you get to the FINAL decision….

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Come to the Dark side, we have cookies

 And then as you were leaving the exhibit, as is the case with Epcot’s Spaceship earth, you could have the results of your character’s development emailed to your home address, as a free souvenir of your visitUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2995.jpg

Not to mention you could shop the gift shop, for even more stuff…

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That said, as a social scientist, Ph.D in cultural anthropology, yadda yadda, I didn’t agree with some of the twabble they were pushing in terms of identity development … it was seriously over simplistic and at times more concerned with political correctness than truth…

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But… let’s face it… while how they put the thing together was interesting to me in a technological sense, NONE Of this is what I came for. I came to see Star Wars stuff!!!!

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Some of the kids who came to the exhibit had totally dressed for the event, including the little boy above wearing a brown Jedi robe that was clearly purchased for him at a Disney park. Other kids were wearing their Star Wars T-shirts. Of course I was wearing a Star Wars T-shirt AND my Star Wars jewelry (my AT-AT necklace and death-star earrings).  

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