A dated monument to the future

The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex is a deep space tracking station located in what is, to the naked eye, a sheep paddock near Canberra. When I was little, I would go to the Tidbinbilla Tracking Station (it’s formal name is above) to see the huge white dish and go into the visitor centre. When I was 10, I thought it was a fun museum but a bit dated and not all that engaging.

The big dish at Tidbinbilla Tracking Station
The big dish at Tidbinbilla Tracking Station

At (nearly) 30, it’s the same. I mean, it’s actually the same. What I can’t ever seem to get over is the fact that the subject matter of the visitor centre is so futuristic, yet the display is so old-fashioned. We’re talking small glass cases you look down on with various space-y bits and bobs with printed paper labels, in some cases stickey-taped on, and panels with dates for space exploration. A projector screen playing some unknown film and an LED ticker with a countdown are the most modern things in this museum. What I’m ultimately saying is, Tidbinbilla Tracking Station – CALL ME! We’ll make it a bit more engaging and modern and get across the sense of excitement that should be generated by space travel.

Two weeks ago I wrote about a small and little-known house-museum in Canberra and I’ve been really happy to see that people all over the world have viewed it. Not many Australians read my blog, so I thought I might write about some local museums and visitor centres that may not be known about internationally. In fact, I’m 100% sure that they aren’t known about.

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Me, at 11, inside the museum
Me, at 11, inside the museum. I was not kidding when I said I’ve been going for 20-odd years!

The Complex is about 35 kms from Canberra along a truly beautiful stretch of land leading up to Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve (also a great destination). The Visitor Centre is located in a couple of medium sized rooms in an L-shape, in a building next to the large antenna. It houses a collection of space-travel material culture including the food that astronauts would take into space, information about the environment (or lack thereof) up there, and biographies of the famous people involved in space travel. The website introduces the centre with the following:

The CSC offers visitors the chance to learn about the role that Australia plays in the exploration of space. You can take in magnificent views of the largest antenna complex in the southern hemisphere, see a piece of the Moon that’s over 3.8 billion years old, check out the latest images from across the Solar System and beyond, check out spacecraft models, plus flown space hardware and memorabilia. Discover the foods that astronauts eat on the space shuttle and space station, watch a movie on the history and future of space exploration, take a hands-on trip around the Solar System or across the galaxy, or just sit back and relax in the Moon Rock Café. (website)

A space suit on display. Photo credit: Wendy Westgate
A space suit on display. Photo credit: Wendy Westgate

Old-fashioned future

I love this museum/visitor centre/whatever you want to call it. I really do. That’s why I want to get real here. It’s old, it’s dated, and so not exciting. The strength of the collection, however, is such that when I went a few weeks ago there were ten-year-olds with their dads who were so stoked to be there and were pointing out everything and there were kids there who were reading every bit of information. That is a very special collection and it is overcoming some truly uninspired display. The biography of these objects is phenomenal and it seems the museum is drawing heavily upon the agency instilled in them by virtue of the fact they have been in space. Something incredibly ordinary is now extraordinary because of where it was and who had it. I’m not sure I’ve seen object agency carry a display before.

The website and photograph of the centre
A photograph of the centre from the website

One of the most popular displays, from my observation, was the collection of packets of food and drink that were taken into space. They are visually uninteresting flat little packets of dried food with inexplicable names – strawberries and beef stroganoff could easily be mixed up if the labels came off. The display is the first one you see and draws kids in as they enter. They know what these foods are meant to look like, and they connect with it and it makes them realise very quickly that space travel is going to be hard work and quite unpleasant. It piques their interest and makes them curious. From there though, it’s unclear which direction to take in the centre and you can go left or right, but both mean doubling back to get to the other section.

So what could they do?

Well, first of all, take everything out. Think of the story you want to tell, think about the story these objects are telling already and use it.

  • Restrict the amount of text
  • Make it interactive
  • Reward curiosity

You have an audience of kids who are actually really interested in this topic so give them something for it. Basically, you have them on the hook, now reel them in.

Don’t sticky-tape labels onto the cases! Use different levels of display, use lighting, use sounds. Maybe make it stark and austere to reflect the nature of space, or counteract it by making the audience feel part of the club who have been in space. Make it futuristic, make it exciting.

As for the cafe and shop – my suggestion would be to do the total opposite of what I’ve said the museum should be. I think (and this is more just opinion about what is cool), make it retro and embrace the 1950s and 60s idea of what space travel could bring. The cafe is already called the Moon Rock Cafe, so I say go the whole hog and make it Jetsons-inspired and fun. After all, those are the references that influenced the generation who designed this museum.

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