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Sydney and the Gold Coast: surf and great museums

Not all of us are all that excited about absorbing educational experiences. Who can blame us? School was positively torturous and we didn’t get paid. Trips to murky grey buildings called “museums” were equally dull and there was always something we weren’t allowed to do. No running, no talking, no eating. The mere memories still summon up sore feet.

After marriage, it percolated to the surface that my husband, Peter, was one of those dreadful creatures, the museum goer. One of those people that absolutely delights is looking at art and reading all the little plaques. He then comments on them, endlessly… For someone like me this is museum torture on steroids. I thought this level of hell had ended at 16 only to find that it can stretch out into perpetuity and invade every vacation for the rest of your entire life.

Visiting Australia seemed like a fabulous idea; I secretly delighted in the fact that Australia and especially the Gold Coast couldn’t possibly have any museums. I wouldn’t be cloistered in some building instead of enjoying the sun and the beach. However, my lovely significant other managed to drudge up a whole load of educational places to visit on our trip to the Gold Coast in Australia.

Surprisingly, I actually liked most of them and would like to go back. Australians do education in a different fashion and it involves touching things, laughing and having a good time.

After arriving in Sydney we spent a few days visiting with friends, seeing the Opera House and securing a car hire for our journey over to the Gold Coast. It was one morning as I was very slowly waking up over a cup of tea that the bombshell hit. My husband straightened up his back a little and leaned slightly forward. He said, “So, ah, where should we go today?” Through a haze of jet lag and toast I missed the manipulation. Slyly from nowhere he produced a small, rumpled folded brochure. Just how long has he had that in his pocket? I wondered. He continued, “I thought maybe we might go over to the Powerhouse Museum.” The jam encrusted toast stuck to the roof of my mouth as I struggled to vent my outrage.
“You want to do what?” I finally croaked. This is Australia, land of surfers, sun and a GOOD time; they couldn’t possibly…” he deftly cut me off at the knees.

“Well just because this was a Penal Colony doesn’t mean there isn’t any culture. Really Jen, I’m surprised at you.” As if from thin air he produced an entire book about museums in the Southern Hemisphere. Apparently the vile museum gladiators had conquered Down Under as well. I capitulated and said, “Well just for a while, I want to go shopping too.” He glared at me across the table. If I museumed, he shopped. It was a truce that had so far saved our marriage.

In the afternoon we ventured over to the Powerhouse Musuem. The large size immediately made me feel slightly ill. I contemplated escape. Then we entered and it was as if somehow we had gotten the wrong building. There were children running around squealing with delight. A huge sign announced ABBAWORLD. Now this I could do. I ventured into 3 hours of brilliant amusement. We played with a robot dog and looked at a wave machine. I danced on stage to ABBA with three 13-year-old girls visiting from Melbourne as my husband looked on in disbelief. Then we played telephone with one another across a room with a dish rather than an ugly cable and learned about the stars. After an excellent snack at the café, bright eyed and bushy tailed I looked at my adorable significant other and said, “Shopping anyone?” He laughed.

Needless to say, once we had driven to Brisbane and the inevitable M word once again raised its ugly head I was a little bit more receptive. Still determined to get a pair of shoes out of the deal I feigned reluctance to visit yet another museum.

Brisbane itself is a fantastic city. A sophisticated downtown sits just a little ways away from pristine beaches on one side and idyllic countryside on the other. This time I gave up lying on the beach to go to the Queensland Museum Sciencentre. Divided into three zones, the Sciencecenter turned out to be just as much fun as the Powerhouse. The little glum signs dictating, “don’t touch” had been replaced by “everyone is a participant not a visitor!” During a live theatre Paper Show we learned about the strength behind paper and how to make a variety of folded paper party tricks. Now I ask you, why didn’t we ever do this as children?

After this second day I was ready to actually go to a more traditional museum. The next day we headed over to the Queensland Museum. Dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of Queensland, the QM is more in line with a traditional museum. The artwork by the traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples is so imaginative and different that yawning didn’t commence for at least two hours.

The next morning I was ferreting through a Gold Coast accommodation website looking for hotels and I stumbled across the Workshops Rail Museum. To my utter surprise off we went to another museum, this time at my own instigation. We took a train ride around the city of Brisbane aboard a restored steam engine. No movie captures the raw power and noise of a steam powered railroad engine. For the first time I appreciated my uncle Ben’s love of trains. A steam engine doesn’t just move it saunters like a fat man driven forward by sheer will power. By this time I had given up the tit-for-tat shopping trips and was happy to spend the afternoon learning Australian style. Peter kept smirking at me because it was so obvious that I was having a good time.

In Townsville Queensland we did the educational triple play. We spent the day going to the Reef HQ Aquarium, The Museum of Tropical Queensland and finished it off with an underwater adventure show at the IMAX theatre. At this museum they even managed to the make Maritime history entertaining. We spent some time learning about how the HMS Pandora was sent to capture the Bounty. The museum had plenty of interactive exhibits and laid back Australian encouragement. The result was a fabulous day.

As we rounded out our Australian trip and were preparing to go home, we talked about my change of heart. In Australia the spaces were so alive and magical. The “treasures” in Australian museums were the visitors. The focus was so refreshingly different and meaningful. As Peter zipped up his suitcase for the last time he said, “So when we get home are you open to a day at the BM?”

“Are you kidding?” I said. “Not unless the Queen brings over a few private jets filled with Australian curators to clean out the cobwebs. They could turn the spiders and all that old Greek stuff into a series of interactive displays. I’ll happily go back when they are finished.”

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