Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
One of my favorite museums in the world is the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia. Although ostensibly classified as a science and technology museum, the label overlooks its significant focus on design and popular culture, two of the reasons I enjoy this museum so much.
The permanent collections of the museum include:
- In technology: historic trains (including the first locomotive used in New South Wales), classic computers, steam engines, science behind global warming, nuclear medicine, space
- In popular culture: A reconstructed 1930s cinema, collection from Wong’s general store from rural Australia, circa 1900, musical instruments
Among my favorites are the computing exhibition and What’s in Store? a small exhibition tucked into the center of the second floor, which explores the rise of modern retailing in the late 19th and early 20th century. The first part of the exhibition focuses on the rise of department stores, with merchandise samples like men’s collar stays and women’s fashions; cash registers and other equipment that show how technology aided in managing the money of the store, and dishes from department store restaurants, which helped create the total shopping experience. The second half of the exhibition is the collection of artifacts from the Wong family, which ran a general store in a small, off-the-beaten path in the Australian outback around the turn of the 20th century. What made this family unusual was that the mother was English and the father was Chinese. The exhibition shows the abacus Mr. Wong used to calculate transactions; various general and Chinese wares sold by the family, and family treasures, including the son’s photography equipment. Although the exhibition only scratches the history of retailing, it’s more than most museums provide.
During each visit, the museum has also featured temporary exhibitions on popular culture. Although I skipped the Beatles in Australia exhibit during this visit (we have a Beatles in Montreal exhibit at home), I thoroughly enjoyed an exhibition of Bollywood posters on my last visit. I did not know much about Bollywood movies before that and the exhibition served as a primer for me.
But the strongest exhibitions in the museum focus on design. Some of the exhibitions focus on fashion design. An exhibition on the Australian wool industry, its innovations, and the fashions made from wool provided insights into the farming of sheep, the technology of wool, and the link between producers of wool and the designers of fashion that employ it.
On this most visit (2013), two design exhibitions deserve note. One small exhibition showcased winners in engineering and design competitions in the previous year. Similar to the Red Dot Design Museum in Singapore, which exclusively exhibits award-winning designs, this exhibition displayed the award-winning designs and, when feasible, objects (displaying a bridge or a skyscraper isn’t feasible). But this exhibition went further, describing the design process and displaying and documenting prototypes at various stages.
The primary special design exhibition focused on the life’s work of George Nelson, the multi-talented furniture and exhibition designer, and design author, an exhibition originally organized by the Vitra Design Museum in Rhein, Germany. The exhibition recreated his 1959 exhibition for the USIA in Moscow, and his groundbreaking home and office furniture designs for furniture maker Herman Miller. (Nelson pioneered the storage wall and modular office, among other accomplishments.) The exhibition also explained how his design work was rooted in research on changing patterns of living and working. Unusual for a retrospective of this type, the exhibition featured some of his less commercially successful designs. (Most retrospectives primarily focus on successes.)
The only limitation to the museum was its boutique. Although it featured some interesting designs for the home and of toys, its selection of books was lacking. The Nelson exhibition mentioned several of his books; I might have bought one or two. But perhaps the book shelves of museum gift shops are going the way of other independent booksellers.
|Fast Facts about the MuseumType of Museum: Design, science and technology, popular culture
Highlights of the Permanent Collection:
Notes about Special Exhibitions: Most of the design exhibitions are special exhibitions though I have seen at least one fashion and one engineering-related design exhibition on each visit.
Special Amenities: Café, gift shop, special exhibitions for children.
Admission Discounts: Seniors, children, students.
Issues to Consider When Visiting: