Scienceworks' 21st birthday

In celebration of the 21st birthday of Scienceworks, we reflect on the founding of a museum that has charmed and enlightened through almost eight million visits since opening in March 1992.

Illustration of proposed Scienceworks building Illustration of proposed Scienceworks building
Source: Museum Victoria

Almost three decades ago, in the mid-1980s, Museum Victoria’s first CEO Robert Edwards, backed by Museum Council Chair Dr Ray Marginson AM, had a vision to create “dynamic centres of learning and experience” over multiple sites, including the old and then long-deserted Pumping Station at Spotswood.

Built in 1897 as the heart of Melbourne’s first underground waterborne sewerage system, the Pumping Station was a major engineering and public health achievement of its age. For 68 years, the toilet and water waste of all Melburnians arrived at the site via gravity, and was propelled onwards by steam and later electric pumps connected to the sewers.

Museum Victoria assumed responsibility for the 3.7-hectare Spotswood site in 1989, as plans grew for a new kind of interactive museum that would communicate the relationship between science and technology and our everyday lives – one not familiar to audiences of the day.

One of the museum’s longest serving volunteers, Rita Bird, recalls in the weeks and months after Scienceworks opened that the job was to encourage visitors to feel comfortable in touching things. “The idea that a museum was a place of interactivity was really new to people,” she says.

“It’s now difficult to appreciate what a radical change to the cultural landscape Scienceworks represented at the time,” says Dr Robin Hirst, Museum Victoria’s Director of Collections, Research and Exhibitions, who was involved in Scienceworks’ development. “The concept was an instantaneous success with family and school audiences, and continues to be so to this day.”

Joan Kirner at the Handing Over the Key Ceremony, Spotswood, 17 May 1991. Joan Kirner at the Handing Over the Key Ceremony, Spotswood, 17 May 1991.
Source: Museum Victoria

Scienceworks opened on time and on budget, at a cost $23.3 million. Premier John Cain laid the foundation stone for the new building on 22 April 1990 – with 3,000 square metres of exhibition space and an industrial design exposing its heating and cooling structures, lighting and lift shafts – and the new museum was opened by Premier Joan Kirner on 28 March 1992.

The Melbourne Planetarium was added in August 1999, as the first of its kind in Australia to use digital rather than optical technology. The Lightning Room, custom-built to create spectacular high voltage demonstrations of lightning and electricity, opened in April 2004.

In 21 years, Scienceworks has notched up more than 80 exhibitions for kids big and small as well as countless presentations to millions of youngsters – all done with the help of hundreds of smiling staff and volunteers. Today, the museum averages around 500,000 visits annually, or around 1,400 per day. Adults who originally visited as children now bring their children.

Triceratops from Explore-a-saurus Triceratops from Explore-a-saurus
Image: Heath Warwick
Source: Museum Victoria

“Scienceworks’ influence over 21 years has been extraordinary – so much so that it’s now hard to imagine Melbourne and Spotswood without this amazing place that stimulates our curiosity and continues to surprise us,” says Museum Victoria CEO, Dr Patrick Greene.

“Learning through play, fun and curiosity has been fundamental to the Scienceworks vision since it was only an idea on paper. But this vision could not become reality without the tireless work of hundreds of staff and volunteers over the years. Thank you to everyone involved, and happy birthday Scienceworks!”

Still taken from Wallace & Gromit’s World of Invention Series 1 Still taken from Wallace & Gromit’s World of Invention, Series 1
Source: (c) Aardman Animations Ltd 2011

Memorable Scienceworks moments

  • Unflappable volunteers – with nine of the original 23 still on the job!
  • Seeing the science of Star Wars and Star Trek in action
  • Being among the more than 77,000 visitors in the biggest ever month on record (July 2009)
  • Meeting the dinosaurs in Explore-a-saurus
  • Moving Wallace and Gromit into Scienceworks