powerhouse-museum-ultimo
Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo (Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

Today, Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum will begin shutting its doors to the public, the beginning of a highly controversial relocation to Parramatta, in the heart of western Sydney.

The arts, science and technology museum, best known for its vast collection of steam engines and planes has stood in its current Ultimo site for over 30 years, and become a part of Sydney’s cultural fabric. But the state government’s decision, five years ago, to shut down the site and shift its collection to Parramatta continues to be met with anger and confusion from heritage experts.

An act of cultural vandalism?

The Powerhouse Museum’s move west has never been popular. Opinion pieces from arts figures have described it as a “one of the most shameful acts of cultural vandalism in the history of this country” and “a global embarrassment”.

Do such claims stack up? Heritage architect Alan Croker, director of Design 5 architects, agrees that the relocation is an act of cultural vandalism.

“It’s vandalism because it’s taking very significant items in that collection from their point of contact and point of connection.

“But it’s also cultural vandalism because it destroys part of our built heritage in the city.”

The Powerhouse Museum building, opened in 1988 was awarded the prestigious Sir John Sulman Medal for public buildings in New South Wales. Just over three decades later, it’s set to be demolished.

Cultural equity or cost-shifting?

For defenders of the state government’s plans, the Powerhouse move is about equity. Moving the Powerhouse was a chance to shift a major institution to the economically and culturally diverse heart of Western Sydney, an area long marginalised by an arts scene concentrated in the posh eastern suburbs.

The debate was initially framed as one which pitted inner-city elites against a move to democratise Sydney’s cultural spaces. But arguments about cultural inequities don’t stack up, says museum and heritage expert Kylie Winkworth.

“It’s a museum murder that’s unprecedented,” Winkworth says.

“I fully support communities in Western Sydney having cultural institutions of their own. But you don’t create culture by thinking you can tow it from one place to another.”

The government’s plan, to disperse the museum’s collection around the state, particularly to regional NSW while the new site is being built, is sold as a way of sharing access to the Powerhouse’s legacy.

But Winkworth says this is simply a cost-shifting exercise that will deliver little to the regions. And more worryingly, many regional museums, which have suffered from a lack of meaningful state government investment for years, don’t have the resources to properly support historic items from the Powerhouse’s collection.

Who is the Powerhouse for?

When the Powerhouse shuts its doors, it won’t just be the permanent collection that’s lost. The museum also has a vast archive which is still used by architects, designers and researchers every day, including photographs, materials and design blueprints held nowhere else.

Much of that collection will end up in storage in Castle Hill. The Parramatta site has 25% of the Ultimo site’s space, and no room for collection storage. That might be for the best — the new location on the Parramatta river has been described as involving an “unacceptable flood hazard” (it flooded in February this year).

Croker says putting collections and archives in a flood-prone area would be “a really dumb thing to do”.

But the demolition of the Powerhouse and the dissolving of its collection is just the latest chapter of a steady decline decades in the making. Architect Peter Watts, who founded the Historic Houses Trust of NSW (now known as Sydney Living Museums) says the Parramatta move is only possible because of the populist dumbing down of the Powerhouse.

“For a long period of time, its scholarship has been eroded and eroded and eroded, until it became a kind of fun palace,” says Watts.

“Once you sacrifice the scholarship in a museum, once you start doing exhibitions on Harry Potter and Star Wars, you just become froth and bubble.”

The new Powerhouse will tip the balance well away from scholarly output — vast collections, unique exhibitions, public lectures — in favour of populist “froth and bubble.”

The Parramatta site will be less of a focused museum than a large entertainment precinct, with spaces to be hired out.

“It’s supporting the night and entertainment economy because that’s what the business community wanted,” says Winkworth.

And for all the talk about shifting Sydney’s cultural balance of power to the west, the Powerhouse moves requires destroying some of Parramatta’s own history. To make way for the new site, two heritage buildings will be demolished.

Peter Fray

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