After spending most of 2011 in a quest for the perfect science museum, it was time to revisit the best one in Australia: Questacon. We last visited in 2009, and we were very curious to know whether it lived up to our rose coloured memories of it after we had visited some of the best in the world.
Questacon is deliberately more of a science discovery centre than a museum. It doesn’t have any fabulous old artefacts (although it has commissioned some fantastic new ones – my favourite is the Clockwork Universe), but it concentrates on its core mission of promoting a greater understanding of science and technology in the community. So here is the rating compared with our standard criteria.
1. The Museum must engage and excite – Despite having been here quite a few times now (and having seen many of the standard exhibits, we still found lots of things to interest us. The exhibits change every now and again, so only one of the seven galleries was exactly as it had been when we last visited. And there was a really good mix of exhibits where you could press buttons to see something happen, and more thoughtful exhibits that made you step back and think. 9/10.
2. The exhibits must work and not baffle – We found exactly one exhibit that didn’t work, out of the whole centre, which was clearly labelled. So refreshing after the Powerhouse! And there were a lot of exhibits that needed to work. And in quite a few places there were explainers hanging around to help you work out what you should learn from an exhibit. As a bonus, one of us told us that Helium was the only element that was not discovered on earth (it was discovered by looking at the sun’s spectral signature) 10/10.
3. A play area should not substitute for teaching science in the museum. Questacon does have a special gallery for the under 6s (which we didn’t investigate this time) but which includes lots of water mazes, building games etc. In the museum itself, though, while you could run around just playing (particularly the ground floor room which has the Free fall big slide and a couple of table hockey games) it does take a bit of effort to avoid seeing what they are trying to teach you. 9/10.
4. Televisions and computers are no longer, in themselves, cool, or more generally, everything should be up to date. We carefully checked the periodic table – it did seem to be up-to-date with the latest elements (unlike, again, the Powerhouse). The advantage of having a fairly moveable bunch of exhibits is that they are refreshed and reviewed reasonably regularly. I didn’t see anything that was seriously out-of-date, and most of the exhibits didn’t rely on an obvious coolness factor of getting you to play a computer game. 9/10.
5. Museums should tell a story. As a family we were divided on this one. In my view Questacon did a good job with each gallery (various different themed rooms). But we have seen science museums that were better at taking you through the science – it probably depends how much the museum is trying to teach, versus give a taste of a scientific experience. You have to do more work for yourself here than at some other places, in order to tease out the story. 7/10.
And for the practical things:
Cafe factor: There is a cafe on the ground floor which is not too bad in the difficult combination of tasty food, that is reasonably cheap, and not just chips. Reasonable coffee, milkshakes and cheese sandwiches were on offer.
Expense: Oddly enough the $70 for a family of four no longer seems stupidly expensive to me, even though it is as expensive as any other science museum we have been to (the other record holder is Nemo in Amsterdam which is 50 Euro for a family of four).
Gift shop: The gift shop has a good selection of science-y things but nothing I hadn’t seen before at our local science-y toy shop. I was hoping for something a bit different, so don’t hold out for a great toy shop experience.