While in Kuala Lumpur, our first priority was the Petrosains Discovery Centre. Our addiction to science museums hadn’t been fed for a while so it was time for another visit. We had a wonderful time. None of us had had enough sleep (as we’d had a night flight the night before). In a very good sign, we had to drag the boys away from the exhibits near the entrance (designed to occupy you while you queu) before you went in, to make the time on our timed ticket.
The whole centre is sponsored and organised by Petronas, the National Oil company of Malaysia, so everything had a petroleum flavour. It was very well done, though, with almost all of it being a way to theme the exhibits, and choose which parts of science to explain, rather than as strong propaganda. It starts from the very beginning, where you take a short ride in a train style carriage shaped like a drop of oil, and continues through explanations of fossils (which become oil over time), geology (getting into finding the oil), molecules (which had some great stuff on plastics), speed (themed with a racing car) and finally (what I had been hoping for, since I had forgotten what I learned in high school chemistry) an exhibit explaining the distillation of oil. The only slightly annoying note was the final ride in a drop of oil summarised the whole experience as having told us about how important oil was to modern life – true, but felt a bit too propaganda-ish to me.
1. The Museum must engage and excite – This really worked for our boys (and us). Each gallery seemed to have a good combination of exhibits designed to appeal to different levels of understanding of science, and enough to keep someone at any level interested. It felt to me as if it had a better set of high school science exhibits (for those who wanted them) than your average science centre, so that it wasn’t just about randomly pushing buttons. 9/10.
2. The exhibits must work and not baffle – Every exhibit worked, and the explanations were excellent. There was a good combination of learning by doing (Exploratorium style) and explanation, which helped both for us to explain things to the boys, and also for them to read (which we try to do where possible) 10/10.
3. A play area should not substitute for teaching science in the museum. There was a play area, one of the classic ones with an Archimedes screw, some pulleys and various other bits and pieces to get (in this case some small black balls, in most science centres water) around and about. The boys had a great time here and it was great to see lots of different kids playing quite cooperatively to get the whole system working. There were also quite a few places with exhibits which were more about play rather than teaching, but I felt it hit the right balance of explanation and play. By the time we got to the designated play area, we all needed a bit of a rest from science. 9/10.
4. Televisions and computers are no longer, in themselves, cool, or more generally, everything should be up to date. Everything was pretty up to date as far as I could see. The science centre can’t have been around that long (the building was only opened in 1999) which probably helps, but that could have easily been enough time to get out of date. Some of the environmental sections felt a bit forced to conform to the theme of petroleum is actually pretty good theme, but that was more about the theme than it was about things working 9/10.
5. Museums should tell a story. This was the strongest part of the Petrosains. It really improves a science centre when a local company takes an interest. See our visit to Salzburg for another example. The theme of petroleum didn’t seem forced most of the time, it felt like a great way to unify a whole lot of disparate science topics. 9/10.
This gives the Petrosains one of our highest ratings yet. Hard to tell if that’s because we’ve not been to one for a while, but it is largely because it is an excellent use of a theme and space. Comparing it with the Norsk Teknisk Museum (also one with a slight oil theme, but not nearly as well done) it definitely was a whole lot better.
And for the practical things:
Cafe factor: There is no cafe in the centre (which if you like spending a long time in a science centre as we do, is a negative). The centre is one of KL’s biggest shopping malls, though, so no shortage of food and drink for before and after.
Expense: Total cost of 50RM (around A$18) for a foreign family of four. If you are a Malaysian resident, it is 30RM. Either way, I think it is the cheapest science centre we’ve been to yet.
Public Transport: Petrosains is in the KLCC, which has its own subway stop, so pretty easy to get to.