The Powerhouse Museum does not have to be sold to build a new museum in Parramatta. The government has the funds in its $600m cultural infrastructure fund to build a new museum in Parramatta. They also had an $860m stamp duty windfall last year. And the PHM has the collections to fill at least five great museums. Governments make policy choices and set priorities. It’s telling that so far its cultural infrastructure fund has been allocated to city facilities; $139m for Walsh Bay; $202m for the Sydney Opera House. No funds have been allocated to Western Sydney. Only Parramatta’s new museum has to be funded from the rubble of the Powerhouse Museum, as Nick Pappas so memorably said.
First and foremost the government’s proposal is a museum demolition plan. Whatever happens in Parramatta, the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo will be demolished. And no government in the civilised world has ever demolished a major state museum less than 30 years after it opened in an award winning, fit for purpose, landmark building.
A museum is not a caravan that can be towed to another location. All museums are anchored in their community. The PHM’s exhibits, stories, audiences and community connections are indivisible from the Ultimo Power Station building, its grand soaring spaces which are so appropriate for the power and transport collections, its supporters, volunteers and benefactors, and not least the vital neighbourhood connections, developed over 120 years. These include the museum’s education partners, its links with the design industries, tourism businesses in Darling Harbour, and the thriving innovation culture and start-up companies in Ultimo. The PHM is an integral part of the culture, history, economy, and community life of Ultimo. We all hope the government builds a great new museum in Parramatta, but it won’t be the Powerhouse Museum, and it will leave a gaping hole in Ultimo.
This is perhaps the silliest reason advanced by proponents of the move. It’s like selling your house and moving to another suburb because after thirty years the sofa needs recovering and the house needs decorating. Of course museum exhibits and programs need replacement, renewal and rethinking. But it is a reckless waste to sell off costly museum infrastructure which is in good condition, and which was built for an asset life of 100 years, particularly when the mooted sale price of the land ($150-200m) will be perhaps 20% of the museum’s true replacement value.
Many PHM supporters share the government’s concern about falling visitor numbers, declining school visits, and a collapse in donations and sponsorship, although there were modest improvements in some measures in the last annual report. But the reasons for the museum’s underperformance have nothing to do with the museum’s building or location. And moving the museum won’t fix the underlying reasons for the museum’s poor performance. This has more to do with issues of leadership, governance, exhibition renewal, a savage redundancy program causing the loss hundreds of experienced staff, and the impact of the compounding efficiency dividend. PHM staff numbers have more than halved in fifteen years. Education positions have gone from 27 ten years ago to just three in 2015, so of course school visits have fallen. None of these issues will be fixed by moving the museum. Indeed the last thing a struggling museum needs is a controversial demolition plan, further eroding community trust and support. The museum will soon appoint a new director, its third in just four years. It is a huge risk to give a new untried director, fresh to an underperforming museum, a multi-million dollar museum development project. And the poisoned chalice of defending the indefensible museum demolition.
Or the selfish city elites don’t want to share cultural resources with the West. This is wrong. The open letter says “we support the creation of a distinctive cultural beacon in Parramatta”. Everyone supports the idea of a great new museum in Parramatta, and sharing the state’s collections. What isn’t supported is the reckless demolition of a major public museum. Museums, galleries and theatres are located in city centres because that’s where they’re most accessible. Many of the 11,000 people who have signed the petition are from regional NSW. The PHM at Ultimo is readily accessible for regional and interstate visitors, and overseas tourists.
We do need to talk about cultural equity and about how and where cultural funds are invested, not just in Western Sydney but regional NSW. However the evidence suggests the museum move is more about developers getting the prized Powerhouse Museum land, than it is about cultural equity.
The idea to move the Powerhouse first appeared in a 2014 report by Infrastructure NSW. It is highly unusual for such a radical initiative to be proposed in an infrastructure report more concerned with transport projects. The report does flag co-investment in cultural facilities with local government. But since then, the Arts Minister has suggested that cultural infrastructure is primarily the responsibility of local government.
If the government was serious about cultural equity it would be spending a good proportion of its $600m cultural infrastructure fund in Western Sydney and regional NSW. It would be sharing significant state collections locked up in storage, it would already have a plan for digital access to the state’s collections, cultural institutions would be required to reach a state wide audience, and it would be partnering with federal and local governments to fund cultural infrastructure in Western Sydney and regional NSW. So far no new money has been allocated for Western Sydney cultural infrastructure beyond the sale proceeds from the Powerhouse Museum. The recent capital works grants for regional NSW allocated just $385,000 for cultural infrastructure across communities that represent 30% of the population of NSW. Now that’s cultural inequality.