What was Sydney’s Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences?

An 1837 fabric swatch from the museum's collection (PD-EXP)

In 1945, Sydney’s Technology Museum was renamed the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, and until 1988 its exhibits were open to the public from premises in Harris Street in the inner Sydney suburb of Ultimo. And what a museum it was! I was a regular visitor as a child in the late 1960s.

Outside the building was a full-size mockup of the Apollo Lunar Lander, which was quite a drawcard. Inside, there were two very crammed floors of public exhibits. There were none of the trimmings of the modern-day museum. No spacious lobbies, no food concessions, no classrooms, no patronising interpretations, no playgrounds, no corporate sponsorship, and no mission statements. Just raw, informative, educational, fascinating exhibits.

There were no tickets and no entry charges, you just walked in off the street. And every weekend the place was packed with a throng of adults and children moving from exhibit to exhibit.

There was a cosy planetarium. It held only a few dozen people at a time, and the Sydney skyline silhouette it displayed (“as the sun sinks slowly in the west…”) was frozen in time, excluding the skyscrapers of the 1960s. The shows were fabulous: tailored to the calendar, and presented by people who were knowledgeable about astronomy.

Nearby was the color television area, with a camera about the size of a fridge on wheels, and technicians who had to twiddle lots of knobs to make it work. But work it did, and it created much excitement as there was no color TV broadcasting in Australia at the time. Nearby were the iPods of the 1800s—cabinets the size of a grandfather clock, each of which would play one song from a large metal disk (like an overgrown music box), if you dropped a penny in the slot. Australia had already converted to dollars and cents, but an attendant sold pennies to those who wanted to try the machines.

The “transparent woman” was a mannekin packed with plastic organs that lit up in turn as the narrator described their function. You left knowing exactly where your pancreas was and what it looked like.

On the hour we would gather at the Strasbourg Clock model to watch this amazing mechanical device show us the procession of the Apostles, the four ages of man, two cherubs (one of whom inverted a sandglass) and a rooster. In addition to the hour and minute hand, there were dials for the seasons, and to indicate the position of the moon, the planets and the sun.

Two of the exhibits had long queues. There was a noughts-and-crosses (tic-tac-toe) machine. It wasn’t software operated, as it was built before computers were invented. It wasn’t transistorised, as it was built before transistors were invented. The game play was directly wired into the circuitry behind the switches. Needless to say, the machine never lost.

The other long queue was to use the electronic calculator. It’s hard to imagine, but in 1968 an electronic calculator was so expensive and uncommon that few people had seen one and everyone wanted to try it for themselves.

I’ve only touched on what the museum had to offer, but it was a truly remarkable institution.

My relationship with the museum came to a sudden and unexpected end around 1978. I was visiting with a group of friends. It was something interesting to do on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Suddenly a couple of museum officials accosted our group and accused us of vandalising the drinking fountain upstairs (we hadn’t even been upstairs yet). Before we knew it, we had been turfed out into the street, and told in no uncertain terms that we were never to return.

I guess today’s youth would have had the confidence to protest their innocence and assert their rights, but it all happened so quickly and I think we just felt there was nothing we could do against “the man”. So we never went back there again.

In 1988 the museum was relocated to much larger premises at the former Ultimo Power Station, where it is now known as the Powerhouse Museum. Here there’s lots of space, and the museum has been reinvented based around the theme of human ingenuity. The displays and events are much more socially conscious and culturally aware; no longer do the exhibits speak for themselves, and there’s now an admission charge. But you can still see the Strasburg Clock. And in a very worthwhile gesture the museum has released scanned images of its historic fabric swatches on the internet. They are public domain, and free for any kind of use.

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1 Comment

  • Larry says:

    I don’t have such fond memories of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, but found the Power House Museum to be a fine new place. It also has a very good website; not just the fabric swatches are available, and the information about objects and the images are excellent, zoomable to a level that is really helpful – closer to the object than one could see in a display case.

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