By ALEC SMART
As the June date for the controversial closure and eventual destruction of the Powerhouse Museum draws closer, with its exhibits transferred to a new building out west, opponents are ramping up pressure for the museum to remain at its current site in Ultimo.
An inquiry, featuring cross-party members from NSW Legislative Council, is looking into the NSW State Govt’s $1.5 billion plan to relocate the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta now that its May 17 deadline for submissions has passed.
The Select Committee on the Government’s management of the Powerhouse Museum and other museums and cultural projects in New South Wales, established on 27 Feb 2020 but postponed due to Covid-19 restrictions, is also examining disparities in govt funding for city and regional galleries and museums.
The NSW Govt insists it is still firmly committed to demolishing the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo, which occupies a former tram depot and electric generator that once powered Sydney’s historic tram network.
This is despite the NSW Dept Planning, Industry and Environment appeal on 24 Feb 2020 for the Engine House and Turbine Hall, Second Boiler House, Office Building and Switch Hall to be listed and preserved under the State Heritage Inventory.
The Ultimo Power Station and Ultimo Tram Depot operated from 1899 until the closure of the Sydney tram network in 1961, and were eventually decommissioned in 1963.
The empty power station was repurposed as a museum in 1988, when the former Technological Museum (founded 1879) was renamed The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences and relocated from premises nearby to the renovated five-level building.
The redesigned former powerhouse won NSW Govt architect Lionel Glendenning the 1988 Sir John Sulman Medal architectural prize for excellence in public and commercial buildings.
The NSW Govt, which on 19 April 2017 considered reversing NSW Premier Mike Baird’s 2015 original plan to close down and move the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta – the reversal option strongly criticised at the time by the NSW Labor Party leader Luke Foley – instead announced on 31 July 2017 their commitment to proceed.
The museum’s collection of an estimated 500,000 artefacts will not all fit in the significantly smaller new purpose-built museum in Parramatta. A large proportion of them will go into storage or be loaned to other, as yet unspecified, museums. Many of these are already in storage in the Harwood Building in Ultimo, former garages to 108 trams.
“Grab for inner city real estate”
The NSW Govt’s contentious plan ultimately results in selling the historic Ultimo power station site to developers for high-rise apartments.
Greens MP David Shoebridge MLC said, “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.”
Robert Borsak MLC, chair of the Parliamentary Inquiry into Museums and Galleries that ran from 2016 to 2018, said “There is no doubt that this is about a government grab for inner city real estate.”
The new museum will be constructed on a flood-prone site alongside Parramatta River. A 2016 Flood Study found much of the site fell within one-in-20 and one-in-100-year flood levels and was also subject to localised flooding.
On 10 February 2020 the proposed museum site – a former David Jones department store car park – was submerged by floodwaters after an intensive storm. And a major storm in April 1988 in the same catchment area recorded floodwaters above the one in 100-year flood level, with another less severe storm in July also bringing localised flooding. According to the Upper Parramatta River Catchment Floodplain Risk Management Study, that year “Many properties that had never been flooded before were inundated on several occasions.” The study reported that storms are getting more intense and flooding more frequent.
Expert hydrologist John Macintosh, who advised the 2015 Grantham Floods Commission of Inquiry into the Queensland catastrophe in which 12 people drowned, cautioned in April 2018 that flood vulnerability on the new Parramatta riverside site could result in deaths and irreparably damaged exhibits.
On 17 Dec 2019 the winning architectural design of the new museum in Parramatta was revealed. It was won by French-Japanese firm Moreau Kusunoki and Australian company Genton, following an international design competition that received more than 74 submissions from 20 countries.
Critics point out that the winning design closely resembles ‘two white milk crates’.
Its construction involves the destruction of Willow Grove House, a heritage-listed Victorian Italianate two-storey villa that has sat on the chosen site for over 150 years. Originally a private villa, it later served as a maternity hospital called Estella. Willow Grove was purchased by Parramatta council in 2015 as part of plans for an open foreshore reserve and entertainment precinct
Also facing demolition is St. George’s Terrace, a row of seven two-storey Victorian terrace houses built in 1881.
On 18 May 2020, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian suggested funds from the sale of the Powerhouse Museum could be used to bail out Carriageworks, the former arts complex in the converted Eveleigh train workshops, which was forced to close at the start of May 2020.
Carriageworks, the largest contemporary multi-arts centre in Australia, went into Voluntary Administration on 4 May after coronavirus restrictions forced a mass cancellation of forthcoming cultural events and exhibitions and the regular weekend farmers’ market, rendering them unsustainable.
The NSW Govt’s arts funding body, Create NSW, provides Carriageworks with an annual grant funding of around $2.5 million, and this was expected to be paid in July. Furthermore, according to administrators, Carriageworks has debts to numerous creditors, mainly suppliers, of around $1.7 million. In addition, it owes its employees $430,000 in leave entitlements and unpaid superannuation.
However, Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore, in an opinion-piece in the Sydney Morning Herald on 6 May 2020, suggested some of the money allocated to relocate the Powerhouse Museum could instead be directed to refloat Carriageworks.
“The NSW government has committed $1.5 billion to the incredibly unpopular and short-sighted plan to relocate the Powerhouse Museum,” Ms Moore wrote. “That is money that could be better spent supporting Carriageworks and other organisations that are so vital to us all.”
On 22 May 2020, ‘shock-jock’ 2GB radio show broadcaster and commentator, Alan Jones, weighed into the debate on his morning radio program, attacking Ms Berejiklian’s support for the museum’s relocation.
During an interview with former Powerhouse Museum trustee, Leo Schofield, Jones labelled the whole plan as “pigheaded, stubborn and ignorant,” and accused Ms Berejiklian of “tearing the heart out of Sydney” by destroying an historic building and its cultural significance for more high-rise.
Describing the Powerhouse Museum as ”a landmark rivalling London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, showcasing its treasures on the international stage,” Jones bemoaned the fact that “its unique collections are being disbanded and its connections to Ultimo are being severed at a cost of over $2billion. An appalling waste.”
The week before, on 13 May 2020, Robert Borsak MLC of the Shooters, Farmers and Fishers Party demanded the NSW Govt release copies of any business case documents and cost benefit analyses justifying the museum’s move that have been created since 12 April 2018.
Under Standing Order 52, Borsak, a vocal opponent of the museum’s ‘relocation’, also called for Ms Berejiklian to supply project capital and costs for the planned new building, plus cost estimates of the transfer and storage of large objects.
During the last Legislative Council Inquiry into the Powerhouse Museum move, which ran from 2016-2018 and was chaired by Robert Borsak, the NSW Govt withheld documents for over two months that explained their business plan, including negotiations and costings surrounding their decision.
When, in June 2018, the business plan costings were eventually handed over after an order from the NSW Parliament Upper House, the documents were seriously redacted.
Until the business case documents were released, the public were not aware that the heritage-listed Willow Grove and St George’s Terrace were earmarked for demolition by the NSW Govt.
Walter Secord, Labor Shadow Minister for the Arts responded: “The cloak of secrecy still surrounds this with pages and columns of key information of financial data redacted from the view of the NSW taxpayer.”
On 13 May 2020, Borsak, chairman of the current Inquiry, declared “We are now over five years into this fiasco. There is still no clarity on why moving the Powerhouse Museum is necessary… The new museum at Parramatta will be half the size of the current one at Ultimo and… the outstanding power and transport displays… will be relegated to a storage facility inaccessible to the general public. That is vandalism in its worst form!
Borsak suggested “The $2 billion being spent on the vanity project could go a long way towards managing and funding irreplaceable heritage collections located all over regional and rural New South Wales. The money would go even further if it were spent on bushfire recovery or drought assistance”.
Cate Faehrmann MLC said, “The Greens support this call for papers because, first, the relocation of the Powerhouse Museum is… expensive and unnecessary and… perhaps more importantly, this pandemic has made necessary the need for transparency and accountability around how every single dollar in the Arts budget is spent because our arts sector in this State is on its knees.”
Alan Jones asked his radio listeners on 22 May: “Isn’t it time for someone to recast the whole plan? Keep the Powerhouse in Ultimo and let Parramatta celebrate its own extraordinary history.”