Heritage: Curator Emeritus Norman Harwood, and the Harwood building

Norman Harwood (1920-1984), Curator Emeritus, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences

by Andrew Grant
July, 2016

The Harwood Building memorialises the name of one of the most influential figures in the history of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

It is hard to imagine how the Power House Museum could have been realised without the enormous contribution of Norman Harwood, former Curator of Transport and Engineering and Curator Emeritus, who retired in 1980 following an extraordinary 30-year career at the Museum.

Norman Harwood, 1980 (MAAS)Norman Harwood, 1980. Photo: Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

“Norm“, as he was affectionately known, made two major contributions to the Museum: he was the consummate curator, developing and promoting the Museum’s world class transport and engineering collections and he was a force of positive energy and indispensable experience behind the transformation of the Museum from its traditional Harris Street site into its new permanent home in the redeveloped Ultimo Power House.

This was a man of irrepressible optimism and good humour and of fertile imagination and practical know-how.  Yet for the bulk of his museum career he had little reason to be optimistic about a better future for its impressive but impossibly cramped collections.  During his tenure, hopes of a new museum site were raised many times by successive state governments, briefly sustained and then dashed.

When the Power House Museum project was formally announced in 1979, the Museum was unprepared for the enormous transformation that would be required to relocate to a new permanent home for its collections. Norm Harwood had already willingly taken responsibility for an impressive brief of tasks that peaked as the Museum entered the transition phase to meet the challenges of the Power House project, unprecedented for any museum at that time in Australia.   These included oversight of the Museum’s Castle Hill site, the four branch museums, site security, the newly acquired former tram depot (now the Harwood Building), exhibition maintenance and primary advisor on facilities and exhibition development for the Power House Museum Stage 1, in addition to his major curatorial duties.  Whether members of staff, trustees, visitors or any of the range of stakeholders and supporters of the Power House Museum, all have enjoyed the benefits of the legacy of Norm Harwood.

Typical of his enthusiasm for the project was his desire to maintain his links with the Museum following his retirement, leading to his appointment as Curator Emeritus, a unique honour. His major contribution to preserving Australia’s transport and engineering heritage was recognised at this time with an award by the Commonwealth Government’s Advance Australia Foundation.

Sadly, Norm was not to survive to see his dream of the new Power House Museum realised but he did witness its progress towards certain completion. He did not enjoy good health after his retirement and died in June 1984. Later that year, the Museum invited his widow Gloria to attend a naming ceremony at which the Stage 1 Power House Museum building was renamed “The Harwood Building, in Norm’s honour.

Norm would have drawn so much satisfaction from seeing the magnificent new museum open in 1988, featuring many of the transport and engineering exhibits he went to such extraordinary lengths to acquire.  He may have derived even more pleasure from the opening of the Powerhouse Discovery Centre in 2007, which revealed so much more of the collection he curated and of which he was justifiably very proud.

There are countless examples of significant acquisitions brought into the collection at Norm Harwood’s initiative. Working with virtually no acquisitions budget, he became skilled in recognising the specific heritage value of discarded machinery or dilapidated vehicles that could be “rescued” rather than purchased.  He saw a future when the Museum’s collection would finally have the funding it so desperately needed to be restored and conserved, properly accommodated and showcased.

The two stories below illustrate something of the entrepreneurial spirit and the human qualities that Norm brought to all his dealings as a curator.

1904 McLaren traction engine (object No. B1998).  This agricultural steam engine was acquired from a property at Kelso, near Bathurst in August 1962. A low loader contracted from the Department of Supply became bogged when attempts were made to load the engine.  A tractor hired to extricate the low loader was not powerful enough so Norm hired a more powerful tractor from Bathurst. The engine was loaded as the light faded.  During the unscheduled overnight stay, snow fell.  The low loader driver set off for Sydney early the next morning but was soon stopped by the police because of the appalling road conditions.  Norm took advantage of the opportunity created by the poor weather to visit the branch museum in Bathurst.  He loaded several display cases into the Museum’s utility for return to Sydney. It was another day before the snow cleared and the low loader finally reached the Museum’s store at Alexandria where the traction engine was unloaded.

The following day, Norm arranged for a television crew from the evening news to record the moment when the traction engine was steamed up and driven under its own power into the store. The cost of the operation would have absorbed the Museum’s entire annual transport and cartage budget. In the circumstances, the Department of Supply reduced their original quote from £65 to £25.  Norm arranged for an album of the photographs he had taken on site at Bathurst to be presented to the low loader driver’s supervisor as a gesture of thanks.

B1498 1904 McLaren traction engine (N.Harwood)1904 McLaren traction engine, in Bathurst 1962. 
Photo: Norman Harwood, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

1923 Australian Six tourer (Object No B1507). Built in Ashfield, the Australian Six was the first serious attempt to mass produce a motor car in Australia.  The Museum’s example had been acquired by a crew from Modern Motor magazine who had spotted it in 1962 in very poor condition on a farm near Mudgee NSW.  Hearing of the car, Norm Harwood contacted the magazine and, together with Mr Don Harkness, whose company had built many of the cars, they arranged an inspection.  They made a strong case that the car belonged in the Museum’s collection and it was later presented as a gift by the magazine’s Director.

The car required complete rebuilding.  Some years before, Norm had acquired the parts of an Australian Six from Toukley, NSW and it was decided to use these some of these parts to reconstruct the chassis and drive train.   However, the museum had no budget for any restoration work, which would include a completely rebuilt body.  Norm approached the School of Vehicle Trades at the neighbouring Sydney Technical College for assistance.  A collaboration was arranged and the rebuilding of the Australian Six became a supervised apprenticeship project.

The rebuilt Australian Six was displayed in the old Museum building in Harris Street before being placed in storage for almost twenty years. When Stage 1 of the Power House Museum opened in the redeveloped tram depot building in 1981, the Australian Six was featured.  It now resides at the Castle Hill site.

Andrew Grant:
Curator at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (Powerhouse Museum) for 33 years.
Senior Curator Transport (1988-2012) and Curator of Transport and Engineering (1980-1988). Since 2012, a volunteer at the Museum, assisting with documentation of the transport collection.