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Powerhouse Museum transformation a ‘broken promise’ from the NSW Government

Ultimo's Powerhouse Museum is set to undergo a $500m transformation. Photo: OZinOH/Flickr


After almost a decade of Liberal Party mismanagement of Ultimo’s Powerhouse Museum, NSW Minister for the Arts Don Harwin announced a $500 million transformation of the precinct into a hub dedicated to fashion and design.

It comes as another chapter of epic waste, stupidity and policy incoherence from the NSW Government, with the poor Powerhouse Museum still remaining yoked to the Government’s museum blunder at Parramatta.

Harwin is doing for the friends of the Powerhouse Museum what he’s done at Parramatta – breaking a promise made just a year ago, not consulting the community, not listening to expert advice, and disregarding the unique culture and collections of the museum particular to its history, design and context in Ultimo since 1893.

This Government has learnt nothing since November 2014. This is yet another museum policy by thought-bubble.

It is $500m the NSW Government doesn’t need to spend on shrinking the Powerhouse to be something other than what it is: Australia’s only museum of applied arts and sciences, and a museum of wonder and inspiration for generations of families.

The Powerhouse doesn’t need to be the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). It is silly to claim it has the most important design collection in Australia, especially since so many donors have lost confidence in the direction of the museum and have gifted their collections to museums in Canberra and Melbourne. And certainly, NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet doesn’t want to pay for the required staffing establishment on the lines of the NGV.

This is yet another broken promise from the NSW Government, given it said last year that the Powerhouse Museum would retain its remit for technology, science, engineering and design. The Government said the Powerhouse Museum was saved. Instead, the mission and facilities of the Powerhouse are being downsized and amended without consultation, explanation or even a veneer of museum planning.

A changed identity 

No thought has been given to the impact of turning the Powerhouse into a fashion and design museum when it’s traditionally attracted family and education audiences. The real waste is that we will have a hollowed-out Powerhouse, without the power and transport collections for which the museum was purpose-designed to display those great collections in conceptually resonant spaces. What is the Powerhouse Museum without power and transport? I think this is a form of cultural cleansing, and that Sydney is at risk of turning into a monoculture, all artist studios, contemporary art and function spaces instead of actual collections.

In the 10 years since the LNP came to government, the Powerhouse Museum has had four directors and lost nearly 40% of its staff. Its highly acclaimed regional program has disappeared, along with the Migration Heritage Centre. Over this period the Government, the MAAS Trust and successive directors have problematised the Powerhouse building as cover for failings of museum governance, competent management and programming. The Powerhouse building has already had one round of disastrous, ill-conceived alterations. Is it possible the problem is not the Powerhouse building, but government cuts, incompetent leadership and policy incoherence?

The Powerhouse Museum does not need a $500m building project. The architect of the Museum Lionel Glendenning appraised a program of maintenance and exhibition renewal at $200m. Add another $100m to rebuild the museum’s expertise and staff, and cancel the wasteful and unnecessary $200m Castle Hill development so the museum keeps its library and state of the art collection facilities on-site at Ultimo, and the Powerhouse might just survive as a much-loved family museum.

Looking beyond Ultimo 

How can the Government justify $500m in unnecessary capital works on the Powerhouse Museum when there is no funding for museums in regional NSW, no funding for new museums in major cities such as Campbelltown, Penrith and Wollongong and no museum policy for NSW? But bizarrely the NSW Government has gifted a cultural institution to the very needy Hills Shire Council at Castle Hill. How is this a museum policy priority except as a cover for the unexplained, unnecessary and reckless eviction of the collections from the Powerhouse Museum at Ultimo? The Government’s policy laziness is entrenching museum inequality and shortchanging communities in Western Sydney and regional NSW.

Ten years of museum cuts have left NSW mired in museum deficit and policy incoherence. Sydney will soon have two museums of contemporary art in the city, but no major public gallery between the city and Penrith. There is no Indigenous cultural centre for the city that claims to be Australia’s international tourism gateway. Sydney is at the bottom of 30 global peer cities for its number of museums. But there is no museum of NSW history, no migration heritage museum to celebrate our cultural diversity, and no gallery of Asian and Indian cultures, just for starters. There was once a nice museum in the Mint on Macquarie St, now closed. And what of Perrottet’s idea for a museum precinct in Macquarie St east? Is it one thought bubble replaced by another?

Of note:

  • The Powerhouse has never had any difficulties hosting international blockbuster exhibitions.
  • The museum’s collection and exhibition facilities are far from substandard.
  • The current CEO has stated she does not want to see the Powerhouse presenting international blockbuster exhibitions.
  • Online reviews for the Powerhouse Museum are poor because the management has continued to demolish the museum’s remaining exhibitions, nothing of substance has replaced them and family audiences have been ignored.
  • The current management of the Powerhouse Museum has not yet demonstrated it can present a popular program of exhibitions, let alone run three concurrent major museum capital projects.
  • Is it wise to entrust untried management, short on museum experience, with a $1.5b capital project at Parramatta, a $200m risky, complicated collection relocation and storage project at Castle Hill, and a $500m ‘let’s blow up the Powerhouse’ project as well?

Reading between the lines I think the Powerhouse ‘transformation’ is likely to be more artist studios and commercial event spaces than exhibitions. All the NSW cultural institutions are sweating their real estate because they know the Government doesn’t want to fund the recurrent budgets. That is why Parramatta is not a museum but a commercially focussed Carriageworks West, the State Library is building a new café, venue hire spaces and a rooftop bar, and Sydney Modern is a function centre. That is why Sydney will never equal Melbourne for cultural vibrancy.

Here are some questions you could ask the Minister:

  • What is the Powerhouse Museum without the power and transport collections that are central to the history of the buildings, the precinct, and the Sulman award-winning design of the Powerhouse?
  • What is the Powerhouse without its defining narrative of power, transport and technological change? The Power-less-house Museum?
  • Why turn the Powerhouse over to small design objects in vast spaces which were purpose-designed for the transport and power collections?
  • Why leave just three remnant objects from the real Powerhouse and ship the rest of the very large objects out to Castle Hill where no one will see them?
  • When is the Government going to fess up that Parramatta can’t display the Powerhouse’s major transport and power objects due to flood risks on the ground floor, commercial hire, and no capacity to move large objects into the upper levels of the Parramatta building?
  • Why turf the Powerhouse collections out of the Harwood building’s state of the art collection store at vast cost, risk and inconvenience, building a distant collection facility at Castle Hill, and still have to replace the lost functionality of the Harwood building’s operations by taking over former gallery space in the Powerhouse Museum? How is that fiscally responsible?
  • What about the museum’s family audiences? Are they interested in fashion and design or don’t they count?
  • If Central Station is going to be a Tech Precinct why gut the Powerhouse of its science and technology collections and turn the place over to fashion and design?
  • How will a fashion and design museum work in the Powerhouse Museum when the collections are at Castle Hill and the library is at Parramatta?
  • How long since the Minister has had a good look at the NGV and seen its design exhibitions? Not in the same league Minister. And it’s not a competition.
  • Is the Minister going to direct the MAAS CEO to do blockbuster exhibitions so Sydney can compete with the NGV?

It’s just another chapter in the Powerhouse demolition saga.

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