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Glad the Impaler’s demolition plans

These planes will crash land at the new Powerhouse. Photo: Supplied


Premier Berejiklian is pushing ahead with the government’s world first museum demolition plan. It will close the Powerhouse Museum next year.

The government has spent three years and five months trying to justify Mike Baird’s captain’s pick to send the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta.

It has now released what it says is the Final Business Case Summary, a scant eight pages to justify an act of staggering cultural vandalism.

The government spins its scheme to ‘move’ the Powerhouse Museum as cultural equity for western Sydney.

The real reason, as always in Sydney, is the development opportunity in grabbing the PHM’s 2.6 hectare Ultimo site.

Only in Sydney could a major state museum be evicted from its purpose designed site so that its property, assets and infrastructure can be demolished for yet more apartments.

Fishing for cover for this grotesque asset stripping of public cultural facilities the  government proposes a ‘Broadway-style lyric theatre’ in the Powerhouse Museum.

When the Powerhouse Museum opened in 1988 the great volumes of the turbine and boiler halls were the perfect setting for the museum’s internationally significant power, transport and engineering collections.

These magnificent exhibition spaces were purpose designed to show historic engines working under live steam, the No 1 locomotive and carriages, and the irreplaceable 1775 Boulton and Watt beam engine.

Next year these priceless collections will be gone, back into storage.

Instead of an accessible family museum, the public will have to buy an expensive ticket to an American musical to see a building they once owned.

There is a case for a new lyric theatre in Sydney.

The government has known this since the 2011 review of Sydney’s cultural facilities.

The question is why a lyric theatre wasn’t included in the massive development at Barangaroo, or the $1.5b redevelopment of Darling Harbour.

Instead of a proper feasibility study of site options for a lyric theatre, as recommended by Infrastructure NSW, Arts Minister Don Harwin has come up with his own captain’s pick to squeeze a lyric theatre into the shell of the historic Powerhouse Museum.

The theatre will apparently be funded, built and run by a commercial operator. No public servants, no recurrent funding, music to the ears of the hard right in the Liberal Party. It will be funded by towering blocks of apartments on the museum’s site.

The same brilliant economic formula applies to what is called the New Museum at Parramatta.

It too will sit under a 50 storey apartment block.

All we know of the government’s intentions for the New Museum is summarised in a bare four pages.

Ignoring the Parramatta community’s stated cultural priorities; the government is proposing a STEAM museum and a planetarium.

The NSW government is shrinking the Powerhouse Museum from its current 23,000sqm of public and exhibition space, with total floor space of 35,000sqm, to a museum of only 18,000sqm at Parramatta. The press release says it will be the largest museum in NSW. This will only be true after they have demolished the larger Powerhouse Museum.

The replacement storage and workshop facilities to be built at Castle Hill will also be smaller, less accessible and in every way inferior to the museum’s collection storage at Ultimo.

The Harwood building in the former tram depot next to the PHM has 8,000sqm of environmentally zoned storage for 240,000 objects.

There are also conservation labs, a large fumigation chamber, photography studio, large engineering and fabrication workshops and a specialist library that is used not just by MAAS curators, but by students and museum volunteers from around NSW.

All of this will be demolished to be replaced by only 5,000sqm of collection facilities at Castle Hill, which will be less functional and distant from the Parramatta museum.

It will cost at least $250m to build the new collection storage and workshops at Castle Hill, and move the museum’s 240,000 objects.

There is no cultural dividend, necessity or purpose in moving the treasures of NSW from their purpose-designed, world’s best practice collection facilities at Ultimo.

Also mooted is it a design and fashion museum.

But there is no masterplan for the Powerhouse site. No business plan. No feasibility study. It is museum planning by press release.

All the museum’s recurrent revenue and staff is tied to the New Museum at Parramatta.

There will be no museum infrastructure left at Ultimo.

With no plan, no budget, no staff and no museum infrastructure the result will likely be a few showcases in the theatre foyer.

In the last four years the NSW government has subjected the Powerhouse Museum to an unprecedented cultural vendetta against a major state museum.

The museum has been denied funds for basic maintenance and exhibition renewal.

It has lost more two thirds of its staff. Donations and philanthropy are in free-fall.

The community’s best hope to save the Powerhouse is to visit the museum, write to MPs and the premier, and think carefully about voting for the mob that’s promising museum demolition at the next election.

Kylie Winkworth is a museum and heritage expert and former trustee of the PHM.