When we were deciding what to do these school holidays, Melbourne was high on our list of possibilities because of its Science museum, Scienceworks. So we had high hopes for it. And, not to spoil the suspense, it was a million miles better than the Powerhouse, but that doesn’t necessarily get it up to our all time best science museum list.
Scienceworks is in the inner-ish industrial suburb of Spotswood, on the site of what was once Melbourne’s main sewerage pumping station. To get there from the train station, we had to walk past a working factory (not something we see every day). To mark its 21st birthday (and possibly also the school holidays), Scienceworks had put on slightly more activities than usual, so we happily spent a good half day there sampling everything.
They had an excellent show about lightning, where we all learned something (and Callum got to be a demonstrator for a can crushing demonstration of magnetism), a fairly ordinary science show (more show than science, with Declan taking a turn as demonstrator of non Newtonian corn starch and water), and a themed permanent display of all sorts of scientific aspects of houses (mainly the bug and mould variety, but many other bits and pieces). The pumping station had a still working engine, fortunately it wasn’t pumping sewage any more.
1. The Museum must engage and excite – For jaded, experienced science museum goers, we had a good time. Surprisingly for us, the sportsworks exhibit was a lot of fun, inviting you to test yourself on all sorts of different aspects of muscular strength, agility and fitness. This part had the most adults trying things out that I have seen for a while in a science museum As well as understanding our own fitness, I think we all did learn something about the human body and its abilities. But as a whole, the museum was pretty small. What it did, it did well, but compared with some of the glory museums around the world (Nemo remains our favourite) it doesn’t stack up. 8/10.
2. The exhibits must work and not baffle – This was pretty good. There were the occasional exhibits that didn’t work, but largely everything that was supposed to have an effect when you pressed a button worked that way 9/10.
3. A play area should not substitute for teaching science in the museum. Sadly, the boys were now too old for the play area (maximum age of 8)! So we didn’t get to try it out. The main exhibits were pretty good at not just having a random set of buttons to press, but having some reasonably understandable explanations for things, not just showing off random effects. Where it let itself down was in the science show. There were some fun experiments (making a non Newtonian fluid (aka slime), making liquid nitrogen icecream) but the show as a whole was fairly perfunctory in the science explanations. 7/10.
4. Televisions and computers are no longer, in themselves, cool, or more generally, everything should be up to date. We did find ourselves being mildly amused at parts of the house exhibit, where CDs were explained as the latest way of recording sound, and there was a long explanation of the cathode ray tube, but they did a good job of showing fairly timeless exhibits most of the time. 8/10.
5. Museums should tell a story. We’ve had some great examples here, (Petrosains is the most recent). For such a small museum, I felt that Scienceworks did a great job with the stories it chose to tell, particularly the house exhibit. But I can’t bring myself to score it as highly as some of our other favourites. 8/10.
We had a great time at Scienceworks, but we continue to be sad that for a country that once branded itself the “clever country” does so poorly in the science museum/experience centre stakes. Scienceworks is way better than the Powerhouse in Sydney, but neither of them comes close to so many of the great science museums we have seen around the world
And for the practical things:
Cafe factor: There is a cafe (overlooking a nice playground) in the centre which has a good selection of reasonably healthy things to eat (and hot chips as well). Also on busy days they have a coffee cart so that you don’t have to queue too much (it is Melbourne, after all)
Expense: The base cost for a family of four is $20 (kids are free) but the advice I got (to pay for most of the extras) is the right advice – the base entry fee doesn’t let you see all the best bits – it would have cost us $62 if we hadn’t been Powerhouse members. So at the expensive end of things.
Public Transport: Scienceworks is 10 minutes walk away from Spotswood train station, so reasonably easy to get to on the Melbourne train system. It is also a stop on the ferry from Southbank to Williamstown, which is a great way to get there or back (although expensive – $36 one way for our family of four). However, call the ferry first (which Scienceworks information desk will do for you), to check they have space and are running that day – sometimes services are cancelled due to weather or tides.