Inside the Collection

Technologies that changed our mind

Photograph of Porcelain toilet
Powerhouse Museum Collection, object 86/1812 . Toilet made by Johnson Bros in England for sale in Australia, 1880-1910.

If you could nominate just one technology that’s changed your life, what would it be? There are plenty that we wouldn’t want to live without, but some technologies have affected us so profoundly that they’ve changed the way we think. Take, for example, the flushing toilet. Its introduction doubled the lifespan of British working class people in the late 1800s. Instead of dying of cholera spread from cesspits, people suddenly could plan for an extra 20 or 30 years of life. It certainly changed their outlook!

When planning a display to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Museum’s move to the Powerhouse site, fellow principal curator Matthew Connell and I brainstormed a list of 30 mind-changing technologies. It was easy. But sparks flew when time and space constraints dictated that our list must be halved. We argued fiercely about which technologies to include and finally horse-traded our way to compromise.

Photograph of Reproduction of Galileo’s telescope
Powerhouse Museum Collection, object 2009/65/1. Reproduction of Galileo’s telescope purchased with funds donated by Ross Bailey, in memory of his father Kenneth Joseph Bailey, 2009.

The telescope was on Matthew’s non-negotiable list. He argued that when Galileo saw the moons of Jupiter through his telescope in the 1600s the concept of our place on Earth as the centre of a perfect universe was, despite the efforts of the church, finished. The printing press was another favourite. It gave a newly literate populace in mid-1400s Europe unprecedented access to information. This freedom and dissemination of ideas led to radical developments in religion and science.

Photograph of Penicillin ampoules and packaging
Powerhouse Museum Collection, object 87/1035. Gift of Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, 1987.

Two of my favourites were the Pill and Penicillin. In the 1960s the contraceptive pill gave women control over their own fertility for the first time. It gave them personal freedom to pursue activities other than childbearing. In Australia it forced a rethink of gender roles and personal relationships at home, at work and in wider society that still has repercussions today. Penicillin also changed our expectations. In 1941 it was the first drug to efficiently kill bacteria and gradually made people lose their fear of death from common infections and illnesses. The expectation that we would live long, healthy lives became commonplace.

Other technologies that made our cut included stone tools, agriculture, the clock, steam engine, internal combustion engine, telegraph, microscope, computer, genetic engineering, and the smart phone. We admit that the final selection is Eurocentric. It reflects the Museum’s collection. It’s also largely a ‘first-world’ view. Few of us can conceive of a world without agriculture or clocks or books, but many of the world’s poorer communities still live without adequate sanitation.

When humans started to shape stones with a cutting edge three hundred thousand years ago, we distinguished ourselves from other species. We demonstrated that we were not only conscious of our environment, but could shape it according to our needs. Early stone tools led to the creation of other tools, each providing extra amenity and, in some cases, new ways to live. Agriculture put an end to nomadic existences, but the steam engine completely disrupted the structure of people’s lives by causing massive urbanisation. In the late 1700s steam technology enabled what we now call the Industrial Revolution. The rapid spread of steam technology reduced the tyranny of distance and dramatically and irrevocably increased the pace of life.

The newest of the technologies, the smart phone, earned its place in the exhibition because we think it, too, is completely changing the way we relate to time, each other, and the world around us.  It’s an ‘appendage of modern life’ that’s a timepiece, wayfinder, computer, storyteller and communication device. It’s blurring the boundaries of our lives, allowing us to stay ‘connected’ whilst simultaneously remaining disconnected from our immediate environment. Perhaps it’s too soon to tell, but we think this device is changing our understanding of who we are.

Photograph of Powerhouse Museum visitor comments.
Powerhouse Museum photo. Visitor comments.

One wall of the exhibition invites visitors to tell us what they think of our choices. We’ve been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and engagement with this topic. Visitors of all ages have left opinions and thoughtful messages about the technologies that they believe should have been included. We’re gathering all the ideas because this topic is clearly so much bigger than our fifteen lonely technologies suggest!

Written by Sandra McEwen, Principal Curator.

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