Decline, Failure and Irrelevance; now on exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum

Kylie Winkworth, 10 December, 2022
Decline, Failure and Irrelevance; now on exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum

The latest MAAS annual report reveals a staggering decrease of 77.7% in visitor numbers over the period from 2019 to 2022.1 Just 168,741 visitors went to the Powerhouse Museum in 2021-22. These are not just the lowest visitor numbers since the PHM opened. These are the lowest visitor numbers since 1960.2 The dismal result isn’t down to the lingering impact of Covid. At the Australian Museum, visitor numbers were 510,000, and increased by 14.11% over the same four year period.3

The collapse in visitor numbers coincides with the appointment of the current CEO and a shift in the museum’s programming away from families and education, to creative industries, fashion and design. For the first time since the Powerhouse Museum opened in 1988 there was no summer exhibition for kids and families. And there is no family exhibition planned for this coming summer either. The museum has lost its spatial and thematic coherence and many once popular exhibition galleries like social history are closed. The management’s priority is turning museum spaces over to artists and designers, instead of exhibiting the PHM’s collection to the general public. The collapse in visitor numbers suggests an indifference to attracting diverse audiences and a contempt for the museum’s family visitors. When the lack of programming for families was raised in consultations earlier this year, the response was ‘we’re after a different demographic now’. Just 30% of staff at MAAS thinks senior managers ‘communicate the importance of customers in our work’. And only 36% thinks the museum’s processes are designed to support the best experiences for customers. 4 The museum’s staff is giving the management an F rating in all the most important metrics.

There was an equally staggering decline of 73.8% in the museum’s education figures over the nearly four years of the current CEO’s tenure. In 2021-22 MAAS had just 16,701 learners and teachers, on site and online, down from 63,911 learners and teachers on site and online in 2018-19. By contrast the Australian Museum had 71,680 learners in 2021-22, more than four times the schools that went to the PHM. It is difficult to believe MAAS is serious about the Parramatta Powerhouse having a STEM education focus when the museum has failed to deliver its current education mission, has a floor of vacant education studios at the PHM, and has not appointed any STEM educators or senior science leaders to the staff. The decline is due to the museum’s leadership, not the staff. There are only four education staff working at MAAS. Twenty years ago there were 34.7 people in education when the museum had a roughly comparable number of staff.

By any of the usual metrics of museum performance, the cultural impact, reach and output of a once popular and scholarly museum is dwindling into irrelevance. The funding from taxpayers has gone up – it’s at $55 million this year, while the museum’s output, engagement and impact has slumped. There were just ten actual exhibitions last year. 5 Exhibition design standards have taken a dive. The museum doesn’t look like it cares about design or conservation.6 As if running an actual museum is all too hard, the Sydney Observatory was closed for the whole year and will not reopen until 2023. The museum managed only three publications, generating $12,000, a dismal output when there are 5.6 people working in editorial and publishing. If there were any scholarly articles written by staff they were not listed in the annual report. The MAAS annual reports from 20 years ago list pages of books, exhibition catalogues and scholarly publications. The PHM routinely presented between 45-50 long term, temporary and travelling exhibitions. It was a museum for the people of NSW that cared about reaching a state-wide audience. The museum ran a host of innovative collaborative projects via the Migration Heritage Centre. And its regional museum service worked with museums, collections and communities across NSW. Its projects all generated outcomes for communities, collections, visitor engagement and education all over NSW. Today the museum’s policies and programs show no awareness that MAAS is a state museum, funded by the taxpayers of NSW. It’s being reduced to a museum for the ‘eastern harbour city’ now. It’s difficult to see any of the collaborations listed in the latest annual report generating tangible outcomes for audiences, education or communities across NSW.

When visitor numbers at the PHM crashed to 381,415 in 2013 it rang alarm bells for the government and trustees and the director’s contract was not renewed. Now visitor numbers are more than 50% below that nadir and the chair of the Trustees Peter Collins trills that the Trust and I are thrilled with the significant progress made this past year as the renewal accelerates across all the Powerhouse sites.7  Thrilled! It seems he’s forgotten the basic performance measures for museums. Writing as Arts Minister in the MAAS Annual report of 1993-94, Peter Collins says that a measure of the success of [MAAS] during 1993/94 is the increasing number of visitors being attracted to its innovative and dynamic exhibitions.8 Not any more under his chairmanship of the MAAS Trust.

If this is the future of the former Powerhouse Museum, the government should be reviewing its scheme to turn a once popular family museum into a place for parties, pots and frocks under the banner of ‘Ultimo Renewal’. All the performance metrics indicate that the PHM’s focus on creative industries, fashion and design is a recipe for fewer exhibitions of limited appeal, declining visitors and reduced education outcomes. Whatever porkies were told in the secret business case to secure the $500 million funding to demolish all trace of the Real Powerhouse Museum, it looks like terrible value for money. The shift in focus to creative industries and contemporary art commissions is a flop with visitors and benefactors. The list of corporate and private donors to MAAS has dwindled to barely half a column in the annual report. Who believes in where the management of MAAS is taking the PHM? Not even the museum’s own trustees are giving to this failing organisation.

Taxpayers are slugged millions in staff and other costs to secure capital donations for Parramatta and the demolition of the former Powerhouse Museum. Money – our money – is no object when it comes to fundraising, with the museum blowing $18,000 on gold plates for corporate events.9

Another SES position for the ‘Powerhouse Renewal’ capital campaign was advertised in Saturday’s paper. Unlike the Art Gallery of NSW’s fundraising campaign for Sydney Modern, where gallery trustees were prominent donors, the MAAS trustees, and the capital committee headed by Tony Shepherd, aren’t opening their own wallets. The only trustee to give to the museum is the developer Lang Walker’s gift of $20m via the Walker Family Foundation. Perhaps those specially commissioned gold plates, adorned with witty words and phrases like ‘impotent’, ‘horniest here’ and ‘c**k suckers’, will give the capital campaign a kick along.

The NSW government is hell-bent on rewarding failure. Instead of commissioning a performance audit of MAAS, it is gifting the current management with two concurrent infrastructure projects at a staggering cost of $1.4 billion. This is more than five times the $244m taxpayers’ investment in Sydney Modern. It is hard to believe that the demolition of a Sulman award winning museum that is just 34 years old is the government’s top cultural infrastructure priority, let alone that it is handing $500m to a management team that has delivered the lowest visitor numbers since 1960. Premier Perrottet says he will stand up to the gambling lobby but he is obviously not averse to a massive gamble, not just risking taxpayers’ money but the future of a revered 142 year old cultural institution which he promised was saved. This was a lie. The Powerhouse Museum as we know it is not saved. That much is clear in the recent annual reports.

Kylie Winkworth
Powerhouse Museum Alliance
10 December 2022

1 For the MAAS annual reports See Here
2 In 1960 the old Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences on Harris St had 160,391 visitors. In 1961 MAAS had 185,0060 – 16,319 more visitors than went to the Powerhouse Museum in 2022.
3  Australian Museum,  Annual report.
4 NSW Public Service People Matter Survey 2022 See Enterprise, Investment and Trade, p. These measures are down 13% and 7% respectively from 2021 and are minus 30% and minus 24% against the cluster. The staff survey is a vote of no confidence in senior management.  Read here:.
5 The number of exhibitions was padded out to 14 by claiming the textile study centre as an exhibition; along with the talking heads 100 Climate Conversations, ignored by visitors; the Powerhouse Architecture Commission; and Iordanes Spyridon Gogos; Untitled not an exhibition but a ‘growing and evolving art work’ consisting of fabric offcuts attached to a metal screen. This work is the first thing visitors see when they enter the museum.
6 The Zampatti exhibition is built hard up against the priceless 1785 Boulton and Watt beam engine, preventing visitors from a proper view of this internationally significant object.
7 President’s foreword, p.6, MAAS Annual Report, 2021-22
8 Message from the Minister Peter Collins QC MP, MAAS Annual Report 1993-94, p.3. Visitor numbers were 639,204. After Peter Collins as Arts Minister introduced admission charges to MAAS and other state museums in 1991, visitor numbers dropped by about half down from 1,541,172 in 1991. In 1994 MAAS published 15 books, research papers, magazines and numerous scholarly articles by staff. For further commentary on visitor numbers, staff cuts and related issues see Jennifer Sanders, Submission 142h, January 2019, p.5, Inquiry into Museums and Galleries, NSW Parliament.
9 Andrew Hornery, Private Sydney, SMH, 10 December 2022