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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The Helium Time Monument in Amarillo Texas

Why yes, I’m a geek. What’s your point? It’s a statue of the Helium molecule that’s located next to a Don Harrington discovery center that was closed by the time I got there. (It closes at 4:30, on a Saturday!!!?????? This is a Science museum in a major city… WTF?)

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It’s a sun-dial, but it was rainy, windy and overcast

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By visiting it I learned something I had not known, Amarillo is the Helium capital of the world… who knew?

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Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria Canada

This Royal BC Museum of natural and human history is 130 years old, and is located right off of the TransCanadian Highway at the western edge of the ‘tourist’ area of downtown Victoria, next door to the British Columbia Capitol building. It is a VERY good museum with interactive/experiential display, that make learning more exciting while still protecting the exhibits. I saw something with my actual eyes I never expected to ever see in my life, an actual mammoth.

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The museums displays extend beyond the building, to encompass the entire property, and all ingresses and egresses from the building; and this includes some of the doors themselves, which in some cases are beautifully carved; as such, it really is worth while to explore the entire property, and not just B-line it to the front entrance.
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Inside the museum (assuming you came in via the front entrance), the first thing you see is the Imax theater, and the adjoining gift shop (which has some REALLY nice stuff with much BETTER prices than I saw for similar items at the local tourist shops). This included a lot of T-shirts, hiking gear, clothing, etc. There are in fact TWO gift shops, on the ground floor, so it is worth it to check both of them out. The one in the picture below is smaller, and tends to have more ‘useful’ type stuff, while the 2nd larger one has more ‘artistic’ sort of things.
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Based on my math, if you intend to go there at least three times in a year, the one-year-pass is by far the smartest buy. And since I was going to be living for a full month only a few blocks away from the museum, and expected to see it at least that many times during my stay (rainy days, etc), and maybe even take in some of their IMAX movies, I bought the pass.

The layout of the Museum is more narrow and tall, rather than low and wide, like most museums; as such in order to enter the exhibits sections of the museum (laid out on three separate floors), you need take an escalator — at which point you will be asked to show your tickets and or pass (or the elevators, available for handicapped access). This can be a bit confusing as you can easily spend a full day on just the first exhibit floor (2nd floor of building) and spend so much time there that you end up missing the other exhibits.

On the first floor, just where you exit the escalator, they have the rotating exhibition rooms. When I went it was an excellent exhibit on mammoths that really awed, over whelmed and stunned me. The first rooms taught you all about mammoths, and was very high tech and interactive and interesting.
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But the stunner, was after that room you entered a very small and very dark room which included an ACTUAL baby woolly mammoth.. they have named Zhenya.
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When you first entered the room, your eyes actually need to adjust a bit, but I assume this is to protect this oh so priceless find… which I’m actually kind of shocked they’ve allowed to go on tour.
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Seriously, I cannot overstate my excitement, delight and awe at being able to see in the flesh, an actual woolly mammoth, even if it was a tiny baby. I was completely farklemt.

(I will note, whoever was in charge of curating the display was not particularly careful in setting it up — look carefully at the photos and see if you can pick up the major OOPS!)

In the next room (well lit) there were more interactive displays to help teach kids about the lives of these now extinct animals
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Another set of rooms was about the Natural environment of the British Colombia region, and displayed taxidermied local animals arranged into impressively ‘simulated natural’ settings — remarkably natural, some of them even included moving water.

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this was followed by a very Steampunk/ Jules Verne, ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea type esthetic, showing off the underwater life of the area.
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Another section of the museum is devoted to the human history of Victoria, as a seaport town belonging to the British

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Their collection includes George Vancouver’s Uniform, among others

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AND — and I thought this was really cool, the “actual” dagger (or at least it’s believed to be) that was used to kill the famous explorer, James Cook.
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Alongside these displays is life size “walk through” of the dock, and of a section of a British Sailing ship, with all the appropriate sounds (and some smells) piped in.

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This is followed by a small section devoted to the Gold Rush that help make the navel base /trading post into a city, where you can try your hand at sifting gold

(What the sign says: “Wig and Case: within a year of the rush to the gold fields in 1858, British law was imposed. As head of teh law enforcement, Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie was responsible for justice … The wig was just one of the many effects used by the judiciary to impress upon the sometimes rebellious gold rushers that British justice was paramount.”)

In another section of the museum there is a reconstruction of what Victoria looked like back in time, that is again, completely lifesize. You can walk into stores, go into the movie theater and watch a black and white movie, or walk through a hotel and see the rooms.

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And then there’s a whole section of the museum devoted to the First Nations (Canadian term for their Native American Tribes, which is gaining acceptance in the USA as well), their languages and their art.

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President McKinley National Memorial & Library

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For those who are weak on their presidential history, McKinley was the 25th President, and was shot six months into his second term, in 1901, by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist (he didn’t think we should have any sort of government); McKinley is probably best remembered for, by the simple act of dying, making way for Teddy Roosevelt — which might not be fair to McKinley who was actually a fairly effective president (depending on how you feel about US expansionism/colonialism), but is none the less an accurate statement.

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As mausoleums  go, this is a pretty impressive one, and doubles as a popular place to work out, a phenomena that I seriously doubt the folks who designed and built it had in mind. While there I saw any number of ‘dressed to work out’ women and some men doing the steps. I even saw one class of orange clad 2nd graders assigned by their teacher to run up the stairs as a way of calming them down after a long bus ride, before entering the presidential library/museum portion of the memorial.

 

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Next door to the mausoleum is a really impressive little museum (completed in 1964) that is most definitely worth a visit. It kind of reminds me of a miniature version of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. There’a small planetarium (because of all the school kids I was lucky enough to see a light show on a week day), a gallery devoted to the McKinley’s that shows furniture and various items that belonged to the and includes an animatronic President so good that I’m thinking they may have gone to Disney for his production.

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There is also a whole wing dedicated to recreating a small town of McKinley’s era, with various shops, a post office, a doctor’s office, a dentist, etc., which is in and of itself worth the price of admission, etc., and that’s just on the top floor. I consider this to be part of the living museum trend, even though none of the ‘buildings’ are saved historic ones.

 

The basement is devoted to dinosaurs, but I barely got to see it. There is in fact way more thing to do that I made time for because I wanted to make sure I was able to fit in a visit to the first ladies museum on the other side of town before it closed. If I go to Canton again, which I intend to, I will devote a whole afternoon to this museum.