BY ALEC SMART
Confusion surrounds the NSW Government’s plan to relocate the Powerhouse Museum from Ultimo to Parramatta, with concern that priceless exhibits will be irreparably damaged in transit. Meanwhile the public remains unaware of who will finance the estimated $1.5 billion costs.
Last week the Upper House held another hearing into the NSW Government’s plan to relocate the museum. The hearing studied an Economic Impact Assessment submitted by Deloitte Economics and commissioned by Parramatta Council, which drew attention to the shortfall in major cultural institutions in Western Sydney, the principal motivation for relocating the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta.
“Western Sydney has approximately 35 major competitive cultural arts venues (including performance venues, galleries, museums and heritage attractions), compared to more than 140 in Eastern Sydney. Outside of the two state significant historic homes operating in Western Sydney [Rouse Hill House and Farm and Elizabeth Farm], no major state cultural institution is located in the region.”
Arguing that “Western Sydney represents 1 in 10 Australians yet attracts only 1% of Commonwealth arts program funding, and 5.5 % of the States Cultural Arts, heritage and events funding,” the report pointed out the Powerhouse Museum was in the ‘top five’ cultural institutions by infrastructure funding, behind the Sydney Opera House, State Library and Art Gallery of NSW, all of which exist in Eastern Sydney.
However, while the Deloitte report recommends the relocation of the Powerhouse to Parramatta, it warned that if international and domestic visitors did not attend the new museum in significant numbers, its importance as a cultural attraction would be diminished.
Opponents of the museum’s move seized on this, claiming it would not deliver the financial returns that justify investment in the project.
Greens MP and inquiry member David Shoebridge MLC said, “Parramatta Council has had a close look at this project and their consultants say there is a real risk the museum might not be ‘world class, architecturally beautiful or suitable for the current location.’
“The closer you look at this the more you realise it’s far more about getting development on prime land at Ultimo, rather than building a world class museum at Parramatta.”
The decision to move the Powerhouse to Parramatta was made by former Premier Mike Baird. It is generally accepted the NSW Government believed they could raise up to $300 million by selling the existing site to pay for the project.
However, the NSW Government has yet to present a preliminary business plan explaining how they would fund the relocation, which detractors claim might cost up to $1.5 billion, and the government has now declared the documents to be ‘cabinet in confidence’.
“The cost of the project is being determined by the extended business case process and will be considered by the NSW Government later this year,” a spokesperson told City Hub.
Shooters, Fishers and Farmers’ MP Robert Borsak, who is chairing the Upper House inquiry into the plan, is critical of the secrecy.
“Minister Harwin kept repeating in his evidence that the ‘cost to the taxpayer’ would not be $1.5 billion,” he told City Hub. “He refused to shed light on who else could be contributing to that $1.5 billion cost. Minister Harwin also wouldn’t say whether he or his Government has been in discussions with property developers – instead, taking the question on notice.
“For $1.5 billion, Parramatta could have a brand new science and technology centre on the scale of Questacon in Canberra, rather than an expensive recycling operation for something already in Sydney.”
“Kicking off a project that will cost up to $1.5 billion without a business case or a design brief is not just reckless, it’s negligent,” added Mr. Shoebridge.
“It’s never made sense to spend more than a billion dollars to blow up the Powerhouse only to move some of it to Parramatta. Why not spend the money on keeping the Powerhouse and building something really fresh and unique in Parramatta?
“Parramatta deserves a world class museum grounded in its own unique indigenous, colonial and migrant history, rather than a recycled version of the Powerhouse.”
The Powerhouse Museum, originally known as the Technological Museum, is the primary showcase of the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences. It has been in existence for over 125 years, much of those in purpose-built premises in Harris Street, Ultimo, from August 1893.
On 10 March 1988 the museum reopened in a disused former electric tram power station – from whence it derived its new name – at 500 Harris Street, which was adapted and upgraded to house the museum’s estimated 400,000 artifacts. Many of these remain in storage in the adjacent Harwood Building, former garages to 108 trams.
The conversion of the power station, empty and increasingly decrepit since it ceased operation in 1953, won the principle architect, Lionel Glendenning, the prestigious Sulman Award, the highest award in Australia for architectural innovation and quality.
Among the museum’s most popular and largest exhibits is Locomotive number 1, one of the first locomotives to haul passenger trains in NSW, which was built by Robert Stephenson in 1854 and brought to Sydney by sea from Newcastle-upon-Tyne in England.
It has a gross weight of 24 metric tonnes, and it was rolled into the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo on tracks that no longer exist. Critics argue that its size and the brittle condition of its aging iron construction make it almost impossible to move, with insurers unlikely to warrant against damage.
Chief among those critics is world-renowned museum expert Dr. Lindsay Sharp, the founding director of the Powerhouse Museum, who oversaw the move of the Technological Museum to its current former tram powerhouse site.
Dr. Sharp, who has consulted on the construction of major museums around the world, questions the entire process of relocating the Powerhouse to Parramatta, from the secrecy of its funding to the vulnerability of the new site to flooding, to the practical logistics of transferring the exhibits.
“The Powerhouse Museum buildings are wonderfully robust and they can be upgraded, as they have been continuously,” he told City Hub. “It’s a complete furphy that the Powerhouse Museum is not fit for purpose, can’t be upgraded, hasn’t been upgraded and they need to move it.
“It’s a very complicated issue moving the large objects, and indeed any kind of object that’s delicate and sensitive. People think because objects are large they are inherently robust and strong. In the case of the Bolton Watt steam engine, which is the Mona Lisa of the Industrial Revolution, it’s old cast iron and it’s very fragile. Taking it to pieces is very risky. Transporting it is very risky. If it’s dropped or hit inadvertently by something hard in the wrong spot it could shatter. It would be one of the great heritage demolition tragedies in the world.
“If they do get the old steam engines out, they have to be set 20-30 metres above the current river level to take into account potential flooding. How do you put a locomotive 30 metres up a building? That engineering would be heroic and very costly.”
The NSW Govt. countered, “The collections at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences continue to be expertly protected during any relocation by the skilled staff at the museum. The museum regularly sends objects from the collection regionally, nationally and internationally.”
However, Dr. Sharp is highly skeptical.
“It would be exceptionally time-consuming and expensive to move the exhibits. They have to be completely studied, recorded, and any damage that exists has to be fully recorded. They have to be specially handled and packed, which in some cases is incredibly complicated.
For example, a significant piece of Roman glass from the 1st Century CE to record and pack that would probably take someone at least a day, and there’s no guarantee that it will make it intact to the next destination – they have a habit of breaking even if you pack and handle them carefully.
“It is arguable that there aren’t enough conservators [specialists who manage the storage and handling of museum artifacts] in Australia to handle all this work. We’ll have to bring dozens of them in from overseas. And the government has not yet completed a comprehensive collections’ assessment move cost risk report. We know that factually.
“If the government decides to build units on the Powerhouse site, particularly the Harwood storage building, they’ll have to remove all of those collections from a beautiful purpose-built, safe environment. It will cost tens, if not hundreds of millions.”