Rose Hiscock is the inaugural Director of the brand spanking new Science Gallery Melbourne which we are really excited about! She is a passionate advocate for science engagement and has held significant roles including CEO Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (Powerhouse Museum) and Executive Director Arts Development Australia Council for the Arts.
We spoke to her at her temporary office at the University of Melbourne before the new Science Gallery building is constructed.
So you pretty much grew up at (the open air museum) Sovereign Hill which your father ran, right? Was that a magical experience?
Yeah! This will say a lot about the kind of person I am – it was magical. I moved there when I was 13. I suspect that for some teenagers the idea of relocating to an 1850’s gold mining township, would have been the most embarrassing thing you could possibly do. Particularly given my whole family were involved in the museum. We all dressed up – we had every costume under the sun. …I thought it was Christmas! I was a daggy, theatrical looking kid and I had every Sovereign Hill outfit you could get, including a little street urchins outfit with a neck chief and waistcoat, and a bonnet and pantaloons. I had everything! And I used to elbow the tourists out of the creek to get the gold. Yeah, I thought it was great!
Has it changed much since then?
It was actually quite a faithful representation back then. They were very careful to hide any kind of technology. They were also very interested in experiences and in creating environments that visitors could immerse themselves in. So whether it was an old fashioned kind of lolly shop or panning for gold in the creek, everything was very detailed. The whole thing was an immersive environment in an analogue way. I actually have a secret desire to create a 1970’s theme park. Where you arrive and at the door you’re given a Torana and you don’t have to wear a seat belt. The dog goes in the back seat and you can drink endlessly.
Back in the 80’s there was a sort of a movement for developing those kinds of immersive theme parks and to the credit of Sovereign Hill, it survived. It’s been extremely strong. I think last year they won a major tourism prize. And they were one of the very first organisations to understand tourists, and particularly Chinese Tourists. They put a staff member in China really early, and they developed a tailored a product for the Chinese market that involved a tour and lunch. They actually thought about it from the perspective of the visitor instead of the curator. They were probably a really early adopter for focussing on an audience perspective.
My family were dreadful with animals, keeping animals. We lived on property near a small town called Buninyong, and our animals used to either attack us or escape. And so the ones that attacked us, like the roosters and the goats – we just gave to Sovereign Hill which was then full of our animals that we couldn’t handle.
It’s probably full of their offspring now.
It is! Rhoda the goat has had plenty of offspring. They always escaped, too. Mum used to ring up my father and say, “Look, the horses are out again.” So dad would send the Sovereign Hill horseman galloping out in their neck chiefs to round up the horses. Then I would be on my BMX behind the men on horseback. That was my favourite thing, when the horses escaped, I was like “Yessss!”
And I actually thought that was normal!
Is Science Gallery the first time you’ve created something from scratch?
I’ve taken a large organisation through very significant reform but this is the first time I’ve created a start-up, I guess. It was just me in an office to start with – and an extraordinary network of people around me.
And now we’re a team of 4. Our first program launches in late July and it’s been extraordinary to watch what a team of 4 can do. We are working along-side people that we all know and love, and know are fantastic operators. Having that flexibility, the ability to be nimble and just asking people to come on board with us. Watching it all snowball is extraordinary and so rewarding really. I think for all of us.
At Sandpit at the moment, we’re doing a whole bunch of outdoor work, which obviously has it’s challenges. You have some great stuff planned for the Blood exhibition that’s happening outdoors. What have the pitfalls been for you working outdoors?
It’s interesting, I was on a tram the other day looking at those massive digital screens down on Latrobe Street thinking about how ubiquitous they are now. But also how impressive they are – they’re extraordinary, those massive screens, even in daylight. But we’re also really used to them. I made myself really look at it, and then go, “Oh my God, that’s fantastic.”
I think the challenge is to deal with environments in a way that we’re not used to, in a way that really interrupts your daily flow – and I don’t think that’s particularly easy. The new frontier, I think is sound. I think we’re pretty respectful about sound as a society. Ambulances and police cars are allowed to make sound – the city is the ambient sound we experience. I’m interested in ways we can interrupt that. But I don’t think we’ve cracked it yet.
What has the process of designing a whole new building for Science Gallery been like?
It’s been great fun, I have to say! And partly it’s been great fun because the University of Melbourne are really great partner. The first thing I did when I came here was to write an architect’s brief which I stipulated must fold into a much bigger project around an innovation precinct. And the university absolutely signed up to it. An important point of that was that this public gallery space had to act as a front door into a bigger innovation agenda – the notion of a gateway between the university and the public realm. And they really got it and thought it was a great idea.
So we have selected the developer – Lend Lease, that’s public. And we’ve selected the architect. And we do have a design that we will release as soon as we have finalised all of our contractual obligations. But it’s really exciting. It’s really great. And I wish I could show you!
You can’t give us a sneak peek for this blog?
No! I can’t! I’d love to. But it might be then be a very short lived career for me at Science Gallery!
But the new innovation precinct includes Science Gallery, the engineering faculty graduate school at the University of Melbourne and a really big makerspace – a big fab lab for start-up companies and a co-working space. We’ll also have the research and development arm of big companies. And then student accommodation. So the idea is that it will be a melting pot for like-minded people where ideas bounce around and grow and turn into bigger things.
Science Gallery will be a very social gallery and a learning space where we’ll have workshops. So we could be teaching design thinking in the gallery space then the ideas could be fabricated next door. The concept, say for an exhibition by students or the public could be conceived in the gallery then could be fabricated next door in the fab lab, then come on display within the gallery itself. So it’s really quite a holistic creative process. So what we need from the building’s design is a space that can enable that.
In terms of the digital infrastructure for the building there’s a real challenge. How do you design a digital system that is going to be future proof and still relevant in 4 years, let alone 20? I’ve left that really open at the moment. We’re engaging a working group really soon to devise framework to put in place. The good thing about that is that a knowledge environment is a good environment to be working on it in. Universities do have good industry links, but they also have students with PHD’s to help devise the framework. It’s a relationship exercise more than it is an infrastructure exercise at this point in time really. I’m just getting the right people to try and start thinking about a process. I wanted to start there, with the human capital – rather than with an end point – because I have no idea what the end point is! Yet.
What’s a technology you’ve used, where you’ve realised that it just didn’t cut the mustard?
Rose holds up a retro, vintage watch.
My alarm goes off at very strange times.
What was that watch, Rose?
It’s a Casio. I think it would be late 70’s or early 80’s. I love it. I’ve been wearing it forever and it hasn’t done too badly.
I have a lot of analogue in my life – I drive a 1974 Peugeot. And I play records. So on the whole, I haven’t been overly let down with technology.
I had a go at a HoloLens last week which I thought was great, partly because you can see the person next to you. I’m not a big fan of VR headsets which enclose you in a little world. I think why bother being in that little world? So I do like HoloLens, although there’s still a little ironing out to do. We’ll be using a HoloLens in our upcoming Blood exhibition.
I use technology in a very practical way. I’m a bicycle commuter, but not a recreational bike rider. And I’m a little bit like that with technology. It’s really functional for me, rather than the thing I live for.
I get frustrated with technology when things don’t work – which is entirely my issue. Like if my phone isn’t syncing with my calendar or some stupid thing like that. But that’s usually entirely my fault – rather than it not being an incredibly sophisticated piece of technology.
I think it’s interesting that you’re talking about vinyl and bicycles. People generally are trying to return to something authentic and real, which technology tends to kill.
That’s why the HoloLens is interesting, because you’re actually in the room.
I was at the footy on the weekend – which I love. There’s something very particular about the football that, if you’ve ever gone that feels live real and alive. Like you’re all in the same place at the same time in a very immediate way. But on top of that some people have a transistor radio in their ear, kind of augmenting the experience with sound. There’s something in that that I really like. The sort of integration of real and virtual. That’s something we need to get to more of – one way or another.