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Questacon 2020 Things can only get better

Questacon is temporarily closed to the public to help support the efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Graham Durant, Questacon 2020: Things Can Only Get Better, Informal Learning Review Special Issue 2020, May 2020

Since opening in 1988, Questacon only closed to the public on Christmas Days. That changed dramatically in 2020. In eastern parts of Australia 2019 was hot and dry. Fire authorities warned that the upcoming bushfire season could be bad. No-one expected just how bad it would be. Intense bushfires broke out in multiple locations around the Sydney area and in adjacent parts of the State of New South Wales. The first impacts for Questacon came in November 2019 when 4 schools from bushfire affected areas had to cancel their trips to Canberra to avoid travelling through places with bushfires. Questacon’s various outreach teams also had to take additional precautions travelling through and to areas at risk of bushfire. The situation was to get much worse.

Late in 2019 a series of large fires spread through the forests and fields to the east of Canberra. These fires were of such a scale and intensity that the plumes of smoke were clearly visible from space. On January 1st 2020, the prevailing winds directed those plumes of smoke towards Canberra and for several days after that Canberra had the worst air quality in the world. Outside Questacon the skies darkened and took on an eerie orange hue. Inside Questacon staff and visitors alike were smelling smoke and coughing. The science centre had to close on grounds of public safety.

The city was not particularly well-prepared for monitoring the health effects of the smoke. At the start it was not easy to get good information about the levels of smoke and particulates and the associated health risks. Was it safe to open on January 2nd? Questacon stood up its Management Response Team and went into assessment mode. Websites showing weather, wind speed and direction and bushfire activity started to be intensely scrutinised. Contractors were brought in to start measuring particulate levels inside and outside of the science centre. It was the 0.25mu particles that posed the biggest risk as these are the particles that get deep down into human lungs. What health advice could be found suggested that a level of 25 particles per cubic metre of air was the maximum safe level. There were days in January in Canberra when the outside level was over 5000. Every morning throughout the crisis the Questacon Management response team met at 7.30 to determine whether it was safe to open that day. Taking into account the particulate measurements by contractors, the wind speed and direction and predictions of smoke levels across the city, a daily decision was made to open or close. Front of house staff were on standby for notification by 8am whether to come to work or not. If Questacon was to close that day then notification had to go out through social channels and to the media by 8am. Vulnerable staff were asked to stay at home and smoke masks were issued to all working staff.

In all Questacon had to close for five full days and one half day during the month (January 1, 2, 5, 6, 8 and 9). It was a challenging time. New procedures had to be initiated. New risk assessments had to be made. New monitoring and personal protective gear had to be acquired and across Australia supplies of masks and air-quality monitoring equipment were low. The intense smoke forced the cancellation of the STEM X Academy for primary and secondary teachers, and the postponement of the Questacon National Invention Convention.

The impact of the bushfire smoke was significant. It hit the tourism industry and it hit visitor numbers. December and January are summer holiday periods in Australia and usually the busiest time for Questacon. 2020 visitor numbers were down 22% from the same period in the previous year with significant impact on revenue. Parts of the New South Wales South Coast were burning badly and major roads were closed. Canberra became a central point for holidaymakers and others who were either evacuated or prevented from returning to Melbourne or Sydney via coastal routes. To support people who were affected, Questacon offered free entry to those who had been displaced because of the bushfire activity, a gesture which was gratefully received and utilised by approximately 1000 visitors during this time.

There were many lessons to be learned from the bushfire smoke events. Although Australia is bushfire prone the intensity of the fires and associated smoke was unprecedented. The air in Canberra homes were affected, air-conditioning systems were drawing smoke into buildings and although still with unsafe air quality, the various museums and galleries were places of refuge. Each national institution had to make its own assessment about whether to open as each building had different characteristics and in some cases could close galleries to maintain air quality. On days when the air quality in Questacon was poor but good enough the open, access was restricted to minimise air flow from outside into the building. A number of staff were granted special leave to volunteer as members of the regional firefighting crews.

And then it hailed. On January 20th an intense storm cell passed into Canberra and a very intense hailstorm with golf-ball sized hail hit the city. Roofs and windows were damaged, trees were stripped of leaves, birds and fruitbats were left dead or dying on the ground. Thousands of cars were damaged and many subsequently written off. Questacon was right in the firing line for the high velocity hailstones. Roof-lights, solar panels, roof-top chillers, outdoor exhibits and shade structures all suffered extensive damage. The cars of staff, volunteers and visitors were battered and broken by the hail. Some of the vehicles destroyed in the storm belonged to families who had been evacuated from bushfire ravaged areas. Staff provided assistance in whatever way they could to support distraught visitors. In one instance, a family whose car was destroyed by hail had also lost their home in the fires, and their surviving possessions were all in the vehicle.

Then the fires returned. First time around it was the smoke. Now it was the flames. Large bushfires in the National Park to the south and west of Canberra started advancing towards the city in February driven by strong south westerly winds. Canberra had been hit with a bushfire in 2003 that entered the suburbs from this direction and destroyed 500 homes. Not surprisingly, residents were nervous with this new threat to the city. The fires advanced to some 10 km from the city, some suburbs were told to activate their bushfire survival plans and then fortunately the wind changed eliminating the immediate threat. Changing weather patterns brought rain to dampen down the fires and progressively the bushfire threat was reduced and finally eliminated by the end of the month.

Questacon staff had properties, families and friends affected by the various fires throughout December, January and February. The organization provided support services for staff who had been affected by these events, providing advice on access to the employee assistance program and ILR Special Issue 2020 – 13 encouraging staff to engage in conversations with each other and with managers. The entire staff were tired and feeling a bit fragile by March. Those with respiratory problems were still suffering the effects of the smoke with dry coughs and increased asthmatic attacks. We had lost the summer but the crisis was over. We had lessons to learn, procedures, plans and budgets to adjust, and new air quality monitors to install.

The wall-to-wall media coverage of the bushfires was replaced by stories of a virus epidemic breaking out in Wuhan, China. It seemed a long way away at the time. Surely not. Questacon had produced a pandemic preparation plan in 2009 when H5N1 bird-flu was around. It was time to blow the dust off the plan and get it up to date.

Questacon is an Australian government agency constituted as a specialised Division in the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources. The Department too was getting busy with its pandemic preparedness. Supply chains, production of medical devices, energy security, likely impact on industry and small businesses, impact on the Department itself and their staff. Questacon became caught up in all of this as the epidemic became a pandemic. The first priorities for Questacon were increased cleaning and more hand sanitisers throughout the Centre and scenario planning. Vulnerable staff were identified. COVID-19 arrived in Australia and the Government started imposing social distancing measures and closing things down across the country. School trips were cancelled by state education authorities and Questacon’s outreach teams had to stop operations in regional areas. Closure of Questacon became inevitable as the number of cases grew in Australia and Government restrictions tightened. It was obvious that this time closure would be for a longer period and this was a much bigger issue requiring Departmental and Ministerial clearance. Questacon closed to the public on March 20th.

All-staff were involved in preparatory activities prior to closure so when the final decision was made it came as no surprise. The first focus was on communications to staff, members and other senior stakeholders. Casual staff were understandably anxious but reassured that we expected to keep them employed either at Questacon on in providing surge support for one of the various Government COVID-19 response teams. Strong interpersonal skills and science training suited them well for picking up temporary work of this nature. All-staff are being encouraged to acquire new skills during the downtime from operating a busy science centre. The next major challenge came with the requirement for a significant proportion of staff to work from home. This required a Herculeaen effort from the IT support team who are still busy ensuring that staff and equipment are able to use the various remote working platforms some requiring to be more secure than others.

With the closure of schools and with families being told to remain at home there was an imperative to re-package existing digital content and to generate new relevant content. A social media campaign was launched to keep members and the public at large connected with Questacon. Social distancing now requires all meetings to be conducted remotely. This is creating new insight into staff homes, families and pets all of whom now pop up in management meetings. Social hook-ups and hang-outs now provide a way of keeping in touch across the organisation. Our online shop is doing more business now. Many face to face activities are being replaced with virtual projects. An upcoming 3-day virtual National Invention Convention with delegates linking up across Australia will be the first big test.

But what of the future? When will we open again? What will our world be like when we do? Will families visit a busy and often crowded hands-on science centre after several months of hands-off activities and social distancing? How do we re-build educational tourism in Canberra? Will regional schools return? Our online booking portal suggests that schools are hoping that they may be able to travel again from October. That may be optimistic. Will we be free of COVID-19 in 6 months? Will there be a vaccine by then or are we in for a much longer period of closure? How will Australia and other countries recover from the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak?

This month Questacon was due to start producing its next decadal plan. We can still do this but it will be a different plan from one we would have produced just 4 months ago. In all our previous scenarios we did not see this coming. We had some plans in place for each of the elements but not all together and not at the scale that has hit Australia and the world. Two weeks into closure the organisation is starting to find its feet again. As happens after bushfires there are green shoots of recovery amongst a blackened landscape. With new enforced ways of working a creativity dividend is starting to appear. Old ways of working are being questioned and priorities being re-assessed. A new and improved Questacon will eventually emerge from the troubled start to 2020.

Graham Durant is the Director at Questacon in Canberra, Australia.
He can be reached at Graham. [email protected].

This article is reproduced from the Informal Learning Review Special Issue 2020.
Click here to view the Special Issue in full (PDF file).