Michael Gore AM was the foundation director of Questacon – the National Science and Technology Centre in Canberra. More about Michael Gore
Susan Stocklmayer AM is the Director of the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University in Canberra. More about Susan Stocklmayer
The early history of Australia’s interactive science centres shows that all were started in the early 1980s by people keen to share their passion for science. Many of the founders were university academics. Their stories tell of vision, determination, frustration and, in some cases, triumph. All achieved their initial goals but some of the first science centres came to a disappointing end.
One of the possible reasons behind the establishment of interactive science centres was falling enrolments in tertiary science courses. In particular, physics needed a more attractive image; it is no coincidence that many Australian physicists were influential in the early science centre movement. In common with science centres in other parts of the world, most of those in Australia were inspired by the Exploratorium in San Francisco developed by Frank Oppenheimer. The Exploratorium made its exhibits ‘available’ by providing a ‘cook book’ that showed how to construct and operate various exhibits they had developed.
Advocates of science centres in the 1980s saw them as fundamentally different from museums. Museums of science, including natural history, were considered to be concerned with scholarly research based on collections and with exhibiting those collections, but in a static and unchanging manner. Interactive science centre enthusiasts, however, encouraged experimentation: they made much of the fact that the visitors could actually handle the exhibits. Their early founders were driven by a sense of excitement, recognition that interactivity could bring ‘their’ science into the public domain. One advocate asserted that science centres were ‘minds on’, not just ‘hands on’.
This belief in the value of experiment was paralleled by developments in formal and informal science education. The movement known as ‘constructivism’ placed a high value on experiential learning, the recognition that knowledge was developed by individual people based on their own experiences and was not simply something that was taught or learned from books.  Although early science centre research was based on museum methodology, it gradually moved to a different framework that acknowledged this different philosophical base and view of the nature of learning.
At much the same time, however, increasing attention was being paid to the ‘failure’ of a broader public to understand science. Surveys  found that the public lacked an adequate understanding of science. This so-called ‘deficit model’ of public knowledge  of the late 1980s considered that enhanced general science literacy would result in greater economic prosperity, greater appreciation of scientific research, and greater participation in democratic decision-making.  Science centres fortuitously provided a means of taking scientific ideas to a broader public, to foster such understanding.
There were problems from the start. The emerging science centres had little money and few people to construct exhibits. Fortunately, physics provides a vast source of ideas from which to make cheap, simple interactives. Chemistry is labour-intensive and poses problems of safety. In biology, living things need constant care and attention. Even for physics-based exhibits, there was the ongoing problem of maintenance. It was recognised at the outset that science centres must have technical people to build and fix exhibits, despite the expense. In the beginning therefore, science centres concentrated on physics activities that were simple, cheap to construct and easy to maintain.
Advocates for science centres also saw an important difference from museums in the 1980s, in that the former often engaged explainers in the exhibit areas. The need for explainers placed a further staffing burden on early science centres.
The first interactive science centre was the Questacon in Canberra, with just a few hands-on exhibits in rented premises. An Innovation Grant was obtained from the Australian Schools Commission and in 1983 it opened to the general public. Student ‘explainers’ were recruited to give science shows, and that group became the ‘Science Circus’ which now tours rural Australia. Questacon evolved into a major popular attraction in a purpose-built building sited in Canberra’s parliamentary triangle. The new Questacon opened in 1988 during Australia’s Bicentenary, jointly funded by the Australian and Japanese governments, the latter providing half the capital cost.
A number of other science centres developed in various parts of Australia. The Supernova Science Centre, established in Newcastle in 1986, is now a centrepiece of the Newcastle Regional Museum. It began as a number of interactive exhibits for the Newcastle show of 1980. The Musbus travelling museum and hands-on science program was conducted during the 1970s and 1980s out of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Experilearn operated from 1983 to 1989 in the Museum of Victoria.
The Powerhouse Museum within the former powerhouse in the inner Sydney suburb of Ultimo housed traditional exhibits and others more characteristic of science centres, as did Scienceworks which opened in 1992 as an arm of the Museum of Victoria. This was a new project and not derived from Experilearn.
In Western Australian the Scitech Discovery Centre opened in 1988 in Perth. Scitech is one of Australia’s most successful science centres. The Investigator Science and Technology Centre opened in Adelaide in 1991 but after years of struggling without adequate recurrent funding, it closed in 2007.
A Planetarium and Science Centre opened in 1989 within the Wollongong Botanic Gardens and moved into a purpose-built building as the new Science Centre and Planetarium in 2000. It continues to be a strong centre for informal education in the Illawarra region. The Queensland Museum Sciencentre opened in Brisbane in 1989.
Since the appearance of science centres in the 1980s, two more have opened, one in Bendigo, Victoria and the other in Devonport, Tasmania. They are officially linked and are very successful. Some centres, however, no longer exist, closing for a mix of reasons, including changing leadership, lack of funding, or declining government interest.
All science centres in Australia, however, are critically under-funded. In the past 10 years the goal of ‘public understanding of science’ has been substantially discredited. A major factor has been a growing awareness that ‘teaching’ science to an indifferent public has accomplished very little. Since the UNESCO World Conference on Science in 1999, there has been worldwide recognition of the significance, not only of science education, but of public engagement. 
Society’s relationship with science is in a critical phase. It is clear that increasing ‘scientific literacy’ means more than just bringing science and technology to people's attention, or teaching them more scientific facts. Science ‘awareness’ is dependent on a general appreciation of what science is, how to use it, and its role in the economy. Moves to ‘dialogue’ are fundamental to a more equal relationship between the Australian public and its science.
It is important to understand the needs of the public, including school students, and how to address those needs. This constitutes a broader role for science centres, which are in a unique position to ‘translate’ the science so that the general public can understand, appreciate and use it to the benefit of themselves and the nation. It is no longer enough just to present traditional science through classical interactives. The challenge science centres face in the twenty-first century is to engage with current issues and develop techniques for reaching this broader public.
Unlike traditional museums, which usually have a core collection of intrinsic value and interest, the interactive science centre depends to a very high degree on personal interpretation of the science. This in turn requires dedication, understanding and excellent communication skills.
However, any distinction may be ephemeral. If the principal distinguishing feature of museums generally is seen to be the collections, then science centres are clearly a different entity altogether. But if museums are considered to be first and foremost about ideas, and as places of learning in the broadest sense, then science centres and museums have much to learn from each other.
1 E Von Glasersfeld, Cognition, Construction of Knowledge and Understanding, National Science Foundation, Washington, 1988; RE Yager, ‘The constructivist learning model’, The Science Teacher, Vol. 58, No. 6, 1991, pp. 52–7.
4 For a discussion of this see SM Stocklmayer, MM Gore and C Bryant (eds), Science Communication in Theory and Practice. Kluwer, Dordrecht, 2001. See also UNESCO World Conference on Science for the Twenty-First Century: a New Commitment, 26 June to 1 July 1999, Budapest, Hungary, online at: UNESCO World Conference on Science
5UNESCO World Conference on Science for the Twenty-First Century: a New Commitment, 26 June to 1 July 1999, Budapest, Hungary, online at: UNESCO World Conference on Science
Michael Gore AM was the foundation director of Questacon – the National Science and Technology Centre in Canberra.
Susan Stocklmayer AM is the Director of the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University in Canberra.
Cite as: Michael M Gore and Susan M Stocklmayer, 'Interactive science centres in Australia', in Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), Understanding Museums: Australian museums and museology, National Museum of Australia, published online at nma.gov.au/research/understanding-museums/MGore_SStocklmayer_2011.html ISBN 978-1-876944-92-6