What Happened to the Museum?


Australian Museum

I was one of those kids who loved going to museums. There was one in Sydney called The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences—everything there moved to the new Powerhouse Museum in 1988—that was full of the most fantastic exhibits; strange machines and engines, with buttons you could press to make them work, a machine that played noughts-and-crosses, and of course an Egyptian mummy or two (I was obsessed with archaeology back then).

The other great museum in Sydney was the Australian Museum, a big old building next to Hyde Park full of the most fascinating stuff. There were upstairs galleries, their walls lined with thousands and thousands of specimens of creatures; slightly moth-eaten life-size diaramas (one of early man confronting a sabertooth tiger) in the stairwells, and a skeleton room that featured a skeleton man riding a skeleton horse.

I spent many, many hours wandering these places, and even then, one of the things I loved about them was the feeling of antiquity, not only of the exhibits, but of the buildings themselves. There was an old English stuffiness about the Australian Museum especially. You went there to escape the noise and bustle of the busy streets outside; to go somewhere cool and quiet and wander among the glass cases, perhaps casting a cursory eye over them, or perhaps immersing yourself in one small field of study for a few hours, reading every placard and studying every object in that field.

I hadn’t been to the Australian Museum for a while; perhaps for the occasional disappointing exhibit. Not only have I been around the world a couple of times since those early days, and seen places like the British Museum and the Louvre, but the shows always seemed so low-budget and thrown together on a shoestring. A symptom, perhaps, of the Australian obsession with sport, which wallows in bountiful corporate sponsorship, while our sciences and arts continue to struggle.

So my recent visit came as a shock, because the Australian Museum has completely transformed itself into a children’s creche. It’s a noisy, frantic place full of screaming, running children and bored parents with prams. Most of the exhibits seem to have disappeared—the upper galleries are empty—to be replaced by temporary walls, basic text in big easy-to-read fonts, bright colours and jigsaw puzzles and toys scattered around the floor.

Now I understand why the Museum has gone this route—they need money. I suspect it happened around the time they changed the logo from something simple and elegant to something that looks like it belongs in a children’s picture book. I also understand that kids need interactive exhibits these days; that the games and movable wall tiles are just extensions of the buttons I used to push in the old science museum.

But what happened to the museum? What happened to the place you could go to learn something? Where does the kind of kid that I was—the kind of kid that actually likes the fact that they’re in an adult place of learning that’s quiet and serious, and is mentally stimulated and made curious and challenged by that kind of atmosphere—where does that kind of kid go? Because today’s museum is a noisy playground just like every other noisy playground. And I can tell you, that’s exactly how most of the kids there were treating it.

I guess the museum has to make money like any other business these days. And they’re pursuing that agenda pretty ruthlessly it seems, with things like two hour ‘backstage’ tours at $130 per person, or children’s Halloween parties at $75 A kid. Something has to fund the research going on behind the scenes. It just seems a shame that the whole quality of the museum seems to have become so kid-focussed. Perhaps the latest research says you have to entertain the kid before he or she learns anything.

Maybe that’s how kids are educated these days. But if I look back and remember the kinds of child I was, who enjoyed the hushed, rarified atmosphere of learning in those old museum halls, I wouldn’t have learnt anything if the museum was like the playground it is today.

Unfortunately, there’s certainly no reason for me to go there as an adult with no kids.

It’s a Hard Life

Comments Off on It’s a Hard Life


My girl and I visited the Hyde Park Barracks the other day and took in some excellent exhibitions about the harsh life of convicts aboard prison hulks and the early female immigrants to Australia.

I feel a small personal attachment to the restored Barracks building as I was one of the 250 or so volunteers back in 1980/81 that spent time sifting through the dust and dirt that had been vacuumed up from between the floorboards. I vaguely remember that a friend discovered an old matchbox, but I don’t think I found anything. I did get a chance to scramble up into the pidgeon-infested clocktower though.

Today, the barracks houses exhibitions about the building and its many uses over the years, and early Sydney in general, and its spacious courtyard is also the venue for various Sydney Festival events–bands, temporary clubs, etc. There’s also a great little restaurant where we had lunch in the sun, eating salad and vegetable tempura and listening to the crows in the nearby trees.

As I looked over the scattered ephemera of people’s lives dredged up from the sea where rotting prison hulks lie, or picked out from rat’s nests between the floorboards, I couldn’t help but reflect on what a lucky bastard I am. A couple of centuries ago I probably would have experienced the days of my (short) life in one of two ways–unremitting tedium or relentless drudgery. Considering the history of at least one side of my family, probably the latter (there’s at least one horse thief and one axe murderer in there). Throughout the small span of years that human beings have occupied this planet, most people have had a pretty rough time of it. They certainly have had very little choice, counting themselves extremely lucky indeed to simply be able to earn enough to put food in their mouth, or have a place to sleep at night.

Whether a domestic servant, a convict working off his fourteen years for stealing a hat, a clerk hunched over paperwork in a stuffy office, an immigrant coming to a new country in search of a life–millions have lived a life where only rarely one could snatch just a few moments of happiness here and there.

After viewing the exhibitions I sat outside in the sun, was served a high quality meal, and sipped a cold beer in a chilled glass. I live in my own home that I can’t be thrown out of (as long as I keep paying the mortgage of course) with the woman I love, and get to do something everyday that is creative and remarkably easy in contrast with most jobs throughout history. I am, and so is just about everybody I know, obscenely privileged in contrast with all of those souls that came before.

It really puts things into perspective.

Image: Jacks (detail) Frank Meadow Sutcliffe, c1880

Corporate Greed


Cross City Ripoff

Regular readers may recall that back in March of last year I posted the transcript of a letter I sent to CrossCity Motorway Pty Ltd with the toll fare and fine I was forced to pay after accidently stumbling through their badly signposted bloody cross city motorway.

Well, just a couple of little updates on that one—Fire sale as tunnel price plummets and Tunnel owes taxpayers, too.

The traffic flow was a third of the estimates. The tunnel is now worth a third of what it cost to build. Banks and investors are hundreds of millions out of pocket. Unpaid phone and electricity bills. Even staff are owed holiday pay.

It never ceases to amaze me that banks and corporate organisations will spend hundreds of millions on a complete fuck-up which could have been completely avoided if they’d asked the opinion of few people in the street. We didn’t want existing roads changed to funnel cars into their tunnel, and we didn’t want to pay a fortune for the privilege of using it. I won’t use a toll road that forces me to buy an automatic electronic payment system (extrapolate how that will ultimately be abused). Of course, the real fat cats responsible won’t be touched—as usual, it will be the taxpayers who suffer for their greed.

I’m sick of having to pay extra for basics that should be covered by our taxes. Hopefully this debacle will bring up short the greedy bastards who think building roads and tunnels is a licence to print money. The people of Sydney have spoken!