Powerhouse and Parramatta: Summary of the Powerhouse Museum Alliance’s position

By Jennifer Sanders and Kylie Winkworth
On behalf of the Powerhouse Museum Alliance, October 2017

The PMA strongly supports the development of a distinctive new cultural centre at Parramatta based on open consultations about the form, focus and themes of the new museum/art gallery and its location.

The PMA and thousands of informed supporters believe the Powerhouse Museum must continue as a major museum and education and tourism attraction in Ultimo.

The PMA supports the model of MAAS as the NSW Smithsonian, one museum with a number of satellites sharing the core of the state’s collections, distinctive for its integration of design, science, technology and social history.

The headquarters of MAAS should remain at Ultimo, with the Powerhouse as its flagship brand.

The PMA does NOT support the sale, lease or any commercial development of the museum’s land at Ultimo, except as part of a revitalisation project that is initiated, led and controlled by MAAS with the goal of renewing its exhibitions and sustainably funding the PHM’s mission and operations.

The PMA will continue to argue for a fair and equitable museum plan for NSW that supports museums and communities in Western Sydney and regional NSW, and landmark museums in Sydney.

Uncertainty around the museum’s future is having a serious negative impact on bequests, donations, philanthropic support and audiences for the PHM.

We remain deeply concerned about the compounding efficiency dividend cuts to the museum’s budget and its effect on staffing and the capacity of the museum. Staff numbers are just a third of what they were when the museum opened.

It is of great concern that the Premier announced (31st July 2017) that the whole of the Powerhouse Museum will move to Parramatta while the government was in the midst of consultations on the PHM to Parramatta project, and well before the completion of the secret business case. This is no way to plan a museum.

The government has evidently not listened to what the community of Parramatta has said during recent consultations, nor has it considered the key points in Parramatta Council’s cultural plan which clearly says their priority is for an art gallery, and that they want to interpret the colonial history, the Aboriginal history and the cultural diversity of the city. Instead of building a new museum around the expressed cultural priorities of the people of Parramatta, the government seems to be determined to ‘move’ the Powerhouse Museum to a constrained flood prone site which the council had intended for an arts and night time entertainment precinct. The government has continued to say that it is ‘relocating’ the PHM when everyone knows the PHM cannot be moved from Ultimo. In fact, if the proposal goes ahead, most of the PHM will be demolished and the museum’s internationally known brand will disappear.

Whatever is built at Parramatta it cannot be the Powerhouse Museum which is indivisible from the Ultimo site and its landmark buildings. Its collection, especially its technology, science and engineering collections are safely and securely displayed with powerful impact in the building’s soaring industrial spaces and volumes.

No government anywhere in the world has ever demolished a major state museum in the city centre less than 30 years after it opened in state-of-the-art facilities and we will not let the NSW government do this. There is no reason why the PHM must close or be reduced to a cultural rump in order to build a new 21st century museum in Parramatta. Making a left over rump of the PHM at Ultimo into an arts or start up presence as the Premier suggested on 31st August is not acceptable and would still represent a museum demolition plan.

In 1988, the Powerhouse Museum was awarded the highest NSW architectural award: the Sulman Medal for Outstanding Architecture; the President’s Award for Recycled Buildings, Royal Australian Institute of Architects National Awards; the Belle Interiors Award, Royal Australian Institute of Architect and was a finalist in the Sir Zelman Cowen Award as well as numerous other architecture, design, tourism and museum awards including Westpac Museum of the Year 1988.

Any diminution of the PHM’s role as a major state museum at Ultimo is unacceptable. The Powerhouse Museum was built for an asset life of 100+ years. It is a reckless waste of money to demolish an award winning museum and a major piece of cultural infrastructure, simply to move the museum 23ks west to a less accessible and smaller site. The PHM at Ultimo makes an important contribution to the cultural and tourism economy of Ultimo and Darling Harbour.

The NSW government is treating a great museum built and endowed by previous generations of taxpayers and donors as if it is a disposable political prize to be trucked from one area to another. The Museum belongs to the people of New South Wales – it is not the plaything of the government of the day.

The PMA asks the government to listen to the people of Parramatta and NSW, and the advice of eminent museum experts. We call on the government to be a cultural leader and builder, not a cultural vandal. The Powerhouse Museum must stay in Ultimo, its home since 1892. And the communities of Parramatta and western Sydney should have a 21st century world class museum that is unique to their history, cultures and contemporary life.

About the Powerhouse Museum Alliance

The Powerhouse Museum Alliance is a group of concerned citizens working to save the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo. Our challenge to the NSW Government is to create a fair and equitable museum plan that supports museums and communities in Western Sydney and regional NSW, and landmark museums in Sydney. The alliance includes longstanding benefactors of the museum, former trustees, design and heritage experts and senior museum professionals. It is supported by thousands who share its views.

Since the former Premier Mike Baird announced in November 2014 that the Powerhouse Museum would be moved to Parramatta, outrage and criticism of the plan has continued to grow. More than $10m has been spent on secret consultant reports. Not a single curator or arts worker from western Sydney has been employed. Community responses include:

  • a petition tabled and debated in NSW Parliament with over 12,000 signatures by people from across Sydney and NSW
  • the February 18 2016 Open Letter in the SMH was signed by 193 business, cultural and industry leaders
  • the current NSW Legislative Council inquiry into museums and galleries in New South Wales drew 169 submissions. Of those who addressed the move of the PHM, 94% were against and 5.95% for; and of the total 169 submissions: 128 against, 8 for and 33 didn’t comment on move. With many supplementary submissions and hundreds of pro forma submissions, this is said to be the most publicly commented on Inquiry in living memory. Evidence to the inquiry has exposed gross inequalities in museum funding, major gaps in the profile of museums in NSW, the costs and risks of moving the PHM, and poor planning of the Parramatta museum development https://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/committees/inquiries/Pages/inquiry-details.aspx?pk=2403#tab-submissions
  • members of the Alliance wrote more than 45 submissions to the Inquiry and 7 members appeared as witnesses. PMA submissions to the Inquiry and papers on the PMA website detail the costs and risks of moving the PHM to Parramatta, estimated at $1.2b for no net increased in museum facilities, the risks of moving the 240,000 objects held at the PHM in Ultimo, and options for a distinctive new museum at Parramatta that would add to the museum profile and cultural infrastructure of Sydney and NSW. Our research has revealed that no government anywhere in the world has ever moved a major state museum out of the city centre to a less accessible location, particularly when the museum is in high quality, award winning, fit for purpose facilities that are less than 30 years old.
  • as well there is the ongoing lobbying by design, heritage, engineering, technology and other groups, associations and individuals
  • notable groups and individuals from Parramatta and Western Sydney have proposed alternative museum concepts and more appropriate locations, and asked to have a say in the cultural future of their region
  • these sustained efforts to stop the reckless demolition of the Powerhouse Museum constitute the biggest cultural campaign in NSW since Utzon was sacked from Sydney Opera House. As we’ve seen with the SOH, cultural infrastructure decisions have costs and ramifications for current and future generations. Careful planning and community consensus is vital. We ask the NSW government to build on the cultural endowment of previous generations by creating a new 21st century museum at Parramatta, without demolishing or diminishing the Powerhouse Museum.