Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Little Explorers' Days


Questacon Little Explorers’ Days.  National Science and Technology Centre, Canberra. February 8, 9, 10 2023.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 8

Like Dr Who’s Telephone Box, Questacon is huge on the inside.  It’s a relatively small building between the Australian National Library, the Australian National Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery of Australia and the High Court of Australia.  

Maybe Einstein could see a case of relativity in this universe.  It’s certainly a prestigious position for STEM education to be in.  That’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, of course – and Questacon is absolutely chockfull of hands-on experiential learning, though I was a little concerned for the 4 year old as the Tesla coil Faraday caged lightning exploded on its 15-minute deadline.  She hid behind her loving mother’s skirts and was not too frightened, I hope.

But the Questacon Tardis really runs on STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, ARTS and Mathematics.  Its 170 seat theatre plays 3 shows every day of the year except Christmas Day – 364 x 3 x 170 = 300,000 according to what BJ Anyos, the Early Learning Coordinator in the Learning Experience Team told me.  Even if it should be 185,640, that’s still probably the largest audience reach per annum of any theatre in the country, as she claimed.

Today, with parents and carers and their 0 to 6 years children (yes, there were some 0’s), I watched Mutti, a plant-eating Muttaburrasaurus, (puppeteered by Dan Power) learn to be brave  - with the help of a hundred or so little dinosaurs – rather than be scared of a meat-eating Australovenator (Brent Brosnan).  We all had to run away very fast together from the billabong, leaving our footprints to record a fossil stampede.  We were gobblers, bug-suckers, or slow-moving yawners with appropriate hand actions, even while we were stamping our feet hard and fast.

As palaeontologists, of course, we had to practise pronouncing Muttaburrasaurus.

Out of the theatre, perhaps in recognition of our DNA, strings of littlies explored the spiral of galleries beginning in Gallery 1 Robots and Artificial Intelligence.  Hold a lever down outside the glass to lift the other end up inside, and a robotic jointed arm with an eye sees what you have done, and (gently but firmly) reaches out and pushes the inner end down again.  Though very littlies basically absorb the experience, as they grow older – and become grown-ups – even such a simple device asks questions, like does the robot have feelings and (I thought) how do I feel about the robot and AI?

There are hours’ worth of activities in the main 5 galleries.  Some are about engineering and spatial learning around fitting what appear to be impossible shapes together; some involve a staff teacher, such as one I saw doing practical mixing of liquids of different colours.  As the children chose and helped with the mixing, they were being asked to predict what colours would result and to work out how to create the colours they wanted.  Here was the Arts again in a lab setting.

My three hours’ exploring with the littlies left me thoroughly impressed with the originality of the Questacon team in their approach to experiential learning, and with the obvious engagement of children and their accompanying adults throughout.

And I remembered how the use of theatre and games in museums had really got under way in Australia some twenty years ago, when Questacon started the Excited Particles performance team, and in March 2002 the first Australian national conference Raising the Curtain: Performance in Cultural Institutions took place at the National Museum of Australia, on the other side of Lake Burley Griffin, inspired especially by Catherine Hughes, of Boston's Museum of Science and IMTAL (International Museum Theatre Alliance), who began her keynote speech as Mary Anning (who discovered the first complete fossil remains of an icthyosaur at the age of 11 in the year 1812) and ended the conference with a lecture and workshop on how to evaluate the successes - or failures - of performance programs in museums.

For more detail, go to my review of that conference at

Twenty years later, Questacon has fulfilled the promise of Catherine Hughes’ inspiration to the Nth Degree.