BHP Steelmaking Show at Newcastle Museum

“It’s about to get very hot in here” warns a voice from above. I look up and notice the apparition in the mezzanine watch room. It’s Harry the Ghost, narrator of Big Harry’s Place, a dramatic multimedia steelmaking presentation at Newcastle Museum.

Against a backdrop of industrial machinery, this six-minute show replicates the gritty atmosphere of a steelworks complete with its deafening noise. Some in the audience cover their ears to muffle the industrial sounds while a toddler sobs inconsolably.

We crane our necks to watch steel pour from the furnace into a 75 ton ladle before the ladle transits across the room. Suddenly the ladle starts to shudder. The crowd gasps as the ladle drops and swings precariously setting off loud alarms and red flashing lights. “Is this part of the show?” the woman next to me nervously asks. Smoke then starts billowing out from the ladle filling the room causing some audience members to cough and look around for fire extinguishers.

But there’s no need for panic. This hourly light and sound show is the centerpiece of the Fire and Earth exhibition focusing on Newcastle’s industrial history.

As the smoke disperses, so do the audience members into the exhibition displays to learn more about steelmaking.

Steelmaking was once a dominant industry employing 11,000 people and producing two million tons of steel a year. When the BHP Steelworks closed in 1999 after 84 years of operation, it irrevocably changed the city and its people but also provided an unexpected windfall.

Julie Baird, Deputy Director of Newcastle Museum explains upon its exit, BHP donated $2.5 million, the largest ever sum to a regional museum. This money was earmarked for an exhibition, which captured the BHP steelmaking experience.

With this gift, Newcastle Museum commissioned an innovative feature ‘Big Harry’s Place’, a moving account of life at the steelworks. Research for the project involved reviewing the steelworks history, visiting Bluescope Steelworks at Port Kembla and interviewing ex-BHP workers.

Employees and BHP also donated objects including uniforms, equipment and photos. As I walk past the shower station, I hear a loud gasp. There’s a lifelike figure inside illustrating the hot and dirty nature of steelmaking. “For a minute I thought he was real,” confides the nervous woman from the show. “I’m glad he’s wearing a towel as there’s kids around.”

There are children around but they are busy playing with interactive displays and running around and touching the huge 90 ton ingot mold which looms imposingly in the corner of the room.

“We broke cardinal rules of museum curating” Julie laughs explaining that the ladle and ingot mold museum pieces from the steelworks are actively used in the multimedia show. These objects are so massive, they were winched in by 100-tonne crane onto a specially reinforced floor before the walls and roof were erected around them.

The floor wasn’t the only thing that needed upgrading. During the special opening in 2011, the smoke set off fire alarms resulting in fire crews showing up. The fire system was modified soon after ensuring that the show could continue to be screened to visitors.

Smoke notwithstanding, the show is immensely popular with visitors. In her office nearby, Julie can hear the screams, cheers and tears as Harry reminisces. Even though the BHP Steelworks is now just a memory, Harry’s hourly presence ensures that visitors understand the indelible impact of steelmaking on Newcastle and its people.

Newcastle Museum is open Tuesday to Sunday 10am – 5pm. The BHP Steelmaking Show is run on the hour every day the Museum is open. It runs for approximately six minutes. Times: 11am, 12 noon, 1pm, 2pm, 3pm & 4pm. Be warned, it is very loud and may be unsuitable for younger kids.