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“You’ll need an hour or two to see the way people lived in the last century”, suggests the brochure for the Faraday Centre - the Hawke’s Bay–East Coast Museum of Technology and Science Centre. Erika Currie finds out what’s to see.
As the name suggests, the Faraday Centre in Napier is a tribute to Michael Faraday, whose discoveries made a significant contribution to physical sciences, and especially to the development of electricity generation and all its consequent uses. He was born in 1791 into a poor family near London and at a young age was apprenticed to the bookbinding trade. However, his fascination for chemistry triumphed when he gained employment as a laboratory assistant at the prestigious Royal Institution in London. Although he had only a basic education and little mathematical knowledge, he rose to the position of Fullerian Professor of Chemistry, succeeding the man who originally employed him.
Of practical and enquiring mind, he became the inventor/discoverer of technology most of us in the 21st century take for granted. Faraday was the first to demonstrate electromagnetic rotation, and some of the technologies we can thank him for include electricity generation and transmission systems, electric motors and precision lenses. He also discovered benzene.
Appropriately, the Faraday Centre’s home is in the former Napier Municipal Electricity Department powerhouse, which supplied power to the city and operated the power station.
The original Hawke’s Bay Museum of Technology was formed in 1979 as an incorporated society by a team of volunteers. When the electricity department’s former power plant, a rare Fullagar oil engine, became available the group was keen to have it but because of its size had nowhere to house it. The engine was built around 1925 by the English Electric Company and commissioned at Napier about two years later. It is possibly the only one of its type remaining in the world, as well as a significant part of Napier’s heritage. Following the 1931 Napier earthquake it was used to light Nelson Park, which became an emergency accommodation centre with some 500 tents providing shelter for displaced citizens.
The problem of housing the Fullagar was overcome when the Napier City Council made the redundant powerhouse available to the museum as a permanent repository for its collections. The former power plant rests in its original working position within the building, but is not set up to operate. Dave Prebensen, founder member and original president of the incorporated society and former Mayor of Napier, says that whilst they occasionally crank the engine over “you wouldn’t want to operate it. It’s rather anti-social [noisy] and we couldn’t afford the diesel for it.”
In 1992, the Hawke’s Bay Museum of Technology amalgamated with the Hawke’s Bay Cultural Trust and was renamed the Faraday Centre. It is now operated as part of the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery in Napier but is run entirely by volunteers and relies on grants, door charges and private donations to carry out its programme.
The Faraday Centre’s aim is dedicated to providing a resource for educators to use and teach children about the technology of everyday items; and the preservation and demonstration of regional technology of historical significance. There are two class rooms to facilitate the educational workshops and hands-on experiences for school groups. Jenny, an educator who comes over from the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery, prepares and conducts the programmes for pupils of local and visiting schools. She says the programmes, which are part of LEOC (Learning Experiences Outside the Classroom, a project of the Ministry of Education) are popular and bookings are essential.
Volunteer Willis Dark is the guide the day Heritage Matters calls. His specialty is radio and communication, having worked as a radio serviceman in Wellington and in broadcasting in Hawke’s Bay.
Willis explains how the Faraday Centre differs from most other museums. Here children get a true hands-on experience; they’re allowed to pull levers, turn knobs and dials, and have a look inside things to see how they work. “There is nothing electronic. All [exhibits are] electro mechanic, you can see how it works”, he says. Like in years past, if anything gets broken or stops working, it can usually be fixed.
For example, the pianola, or player piano on the ground floor, has the front cover removed so that you can see how it works. It took three months to get it going but now it plays beautifully.
Willis says for many children the notion of change is quite strange. Through the centre’s exhibits which demonstrate how things started and then developed, pupils can explore and learn in a hands-on and practical environment. Most have never seen a manual telephone exchange, or a dial telephone and they really enjoy operating them.
Near the entrance to the display hall is a model of the Tesla Coil. Nikola Tesla, the son of a vicar, was born in 1856 in Serbia (then Austrian Empire), migrated to the USA in1894 and died in New York in 1943. A museum named after him is in Belgrade, Serbia. Globally, there are a number of organisations dedicated to Tesla, including the Tesla Memorial Society of New York.
Tesla was highly respected as an inventor, mechanical and electrical engineer, and pioneer of modern alternating current (AC) electric power systems. The Tesla Coil was perhaps one of his most famous inventions. The coils are unique in that they create extremely powerful electrical fields, and Tesla’s plan was that they would transmit energy wirelessly and thus making electricity available to everyone, and cheaply, but the concept failed.
However, on selected days visitors to the Faraday Centre can watch Dave Prebensen’s live demonstrations of the Tesla Coil. It’s quite dramatic!
Other exhibits within the display hall include stationary engines; electric motors; printing presses; a wind machine; medical and dentistry items; household items including butter churns, washing machines, electric cookers and vacuum cleaners; large collection of communication equipment including a manual telephone exchange, old telephones, and telegram and fax machines; radios, gramophones and tape recorders; weights and measures and much, much more.
Willis says that whilst many items are in working order, many remain static exhibits simply because they are too expensive to run, though occasionally some are taken out to vintage events so that the public can see them.
For pupils the Faraday Centre is a place to learn what machines, appliances and gadgets their parents, grandparents and grand-grandparents used for work, play and living, whilst for many adults a visit is a trip down memory lane.