An eight-year review: summarised from published Bulletins
Tom Lockley: 3 January 2022
On November 24, 2014 Premier Baird announced that THE Powerhouse MUSEUM would be moved from Ultimo to Parramatta. This would be financed by the demolition of the Ultimo museum, and the sale of the site for ‘urban renewal’ with all leftover proceeds being earmarked for other cultural developments in the area.
No one took much notice, partly because it was obvious that this was a ridiculous financial proposition, to say nothing of the destruction of heritage. The sale of the bare site would barely raise enough money to demolish the building and move the museum exhibits to safe storage. Incidentally, the finance minister at the time was the Honourable Dominic Francis Perrottet, LLB, BCOM MP and soon these ridiculous financial arrangements were also supported in a ‘study’ by financial consultants Deloittes – consider the implications of this! As the absurdities became apparent, the Government simply doubled down, with some changes of plan over recent years. Present forecast costs of their projects are around $1,500 million dollars.
The ‘move’ came as a surprise to everyone. Even the Museum Trustees and Parramatta Councillors first heard about it by reading the newspapers. Parramatta Council had earmarked the chosen site for a riverside park, open space among a forest of high rise but this was overruled by the Government-appointed administrator on July 30, 2017. This established a pattern of arbitrary decisions, made without stakeholder approval or expert advice from people with museum qualifications and experience, which persists to this day.
By 2015 everyone realised that this was a real threat, and opposition mounted. The wonderful Save the Powerhouse facebook site was joined by almost the entire museum / arts community and masses of the general public, and the Powerhouse Museum Alliance appeared with its website. As well as focusing the community outrage, its magnificent website is an objective chronicle of all aspects of the ‘move’ and clearly demonstrates the Government’s horrific actions throughout.
The events of the following seven years indicate an appalling lack of due process by the Government. Museum experts were ignored. Government secrecy was omnipresent. Numerous sham consultations occurred, in which the Government assumed agreement for the ‘move’ and only selected relevant comments for its reports. Throughout, general support for the Government’s position is at best somewhere around 3% of respondents, both individual and group. Opponents include many significant organisations, including the National Trust (NSW).
At every phase of this sorry saga the decisions have ostensibly been made by Cabinet alone, which is bad enough. But actually the decision makers seem to be a small, unknown group of people who seem to think that THE Powerhouse MUSEUM is their personal property, to be disposed of at a whim. We know that the cabinet is still divided on this issue, and know of several Government MPs who disagree with Government policy, but Government solidarity requirements prevent them from expressing their true opinions.
Public pressure, and divisions within the Government coalition, came to a head in 2020. Mr Perrottet, who was by then the Treasurer, announced on July 4 2020 that the museum was to be preserved at Ultimo. This decision was made behind closed doors over a period of about 72 hours, again with no expert advice or stakeholder consultation. The CEO of the museum was not included in the process, but later in the year she made it clear that she was a in lock-step with the decision-makers.
But THE Powerhouse MUSEUM is not saved. Suspicions about its reprieve were confirmed by the Government announcement of June 15 2021, which stated that $480-$500 million was set aside to create a ‘creative industries precinct’ that ‘supported the design and fashion industries’. Expert expert observers fear this is a thinly veiled process of privatisation. The Government has also forecast the end of THE Powerhouse MUSEUM: in a truly Orwellian touch, the term ‘museum’ has been officially dropped from the Government lexicon: we hear of ‘Powerhouse Ultimo’ and, recently, even just ‘Powerhouse.’
On September 2, 2022 the Government issued a design competition brief to five architectural groups. A total of 30 architectural firms received copies of this, but it is still not available to the public. The participants were sworn to secrecy, but the brief certainly supports the demolition of the 1988 award-winning museum conversion and the removal of all museum exhibits and fittings apart from Loco #1, the Catalina and the Boulton and Watt engine. Even these may be dismantled and moved within the museum. There is no support for this from the public consultations, and copious evidence that this overall thrust has very little support. It costs $250 million more than the alternative proposed by museum experts which does not destroy one of the world’s great museums.
Nevertheless, on December 12, 2022, the winner of the architectural competition was announced. We have no details, only glowing statements of the wonderful qualities of Powerhouse Ultimo, and illustrations that indicate that the destruction of the 1988 additions is certain. We do know that none of the design jury, and none of the architects, have any significant experience or qualifications in running a museum. The chosen architects appear to have never had major responsibility for building a world-standard major museum Our experts are disgusted with what we do know of this non-museum, and continuing obfuscation, secrecy and empty hyperbole make it impossible to find out the many
So what happens next? The obvious answer involves the coming election. The Government is promoting the whole project as a huge boost to the museum / arts area, a ‘once in a generation’ bounty. It seems that the opposition is hoping to win by the ‘small target’ strategy that has been so successful in recent elections. The Labor party began by supporting the project, but were persuaded by the evidence: in January 2020 Labor leader Michael Daley announced that they were no longer supporting the demolition of the Ultimo Powerhouse Museum, but the Daily Telegraph joined others in attacking this, labelling it as a ‘backflip’ and paying no attention to the basic issues. At the present time, if the Labor party openly opposed the Government’s policy, the Government could attack them for depriving the museum / arts sector of $250 million of funding, as well as discrimination against the crucial electorates of the western suburbs area. This may weigh heavily among those that may make an uninformed judgement and thus be of electoral advantage to the Government. The Opposition is said to be promising a review of the decision if it wins government, and without the veil of Government secrecy the appalling nature of the project development will certainly become apparent.
But this should not be seen as a political contest. This is a struggle between right and wrong, between ignorant autocratic decision makers and those who support well-founded cultural preservation, improvement and transmission. The email group involved in these Bulletins, (archived on our website HERE.) has many members who are traditional supporters of the Government parties, and their dismay is evident.
There remains at this stage a slight hope for rationality: Our Bulletin 73 attached the letter we sent to the Department of Planning on 9 August. We submitted that Powerhouse Ultimo should not be approved as a State Significant Development because of the appalling (lack of due) process by which the present proposal was developed. Jamie Parker, MLA, strongly supported this submission. To everyone’s delight (and amazement) the current Planning Minister, the Honourable Anthony Roberts MP, has specifically asked ‘the SSD applicant’ – the Department of Premier and Cabinet (Create NSW) – to respond to this correspondence. (Mr Roberts’ seat of Lane Cove is under threat from Independent challengers). As at today, 3 January 2022, the ‘assessment’ phase of the SSD application continues, and one can only hope, with little optimism, that this will be, for once, a valid process.
It would be great if the Government threw off the veil of secrecy and enabled appropriate decisions to be made. It can happen, even at this late stage, but if not, we have no hope beyond a change of government.
The present situation
As is obvious from the prolific advertising, the Gucci promotional event is under way at the Museum. It is very popular with the appropriate demographic, and worth a look because of its spectacular visual effects, ideal for Instagram backgrounds. For $60 one can buy a tiny fabric purse to parade one’s support for this firm. As for its contribution to the core mission of THE Powerhouse MUSEUM I need to be convinced.
The elaborate Unpopular exhibition occupies about half the display area to the left of the Harris Street entrance. It celebrates the work of Steven ‘Pav’ Pavlovic, and contains material he collected as a live music promoter in the 1990s. A total of 65 people are listed in the exhibition credits, with JBL as ‘major partner’. Most of the space is given over to the work of overseas musicians such as Julian Klincewicz, Guy Piciotto and overseas groups such as Nirvana. The area is divided into about 17 rooms of irregular sizes, with walls covered with specially prepared carpet-like fabric, posters and photographs, with some AV presentations. I have met a few cognoscenti visiting the display, really enjoying it, and I believe that the special functions have been very successful. However, casual visitors I spoke to seemed to have difficulty extracting meaning, as I did. There is an elaborate publication accompanying the display, 36 pages of A4, with high quality layout; the scanty Catalina aircraft display remains an example of a Cinderella project in comparison.
But please form your own opinions. Visitor numbers are still considerable, including school groups in term time. Attending the museum now and over the holidays is still a worthwhile pursuit. Among other things, the steam gallery, the audio-visual Lab and the children’s exciting Experimentations area are still in operation.
On a more positive note, the Carla Zampatti exhibition is also current, and is a great tribute to her work. The staging is very effective, and the notes on the clothing items illustrate the way that this talented Australian enriched people’s lives. Her unique designs boosted Australia’s reputation as something far more than just being an income source for foreign firms. I believe that Curator Roger Leong and his crew have done a thoroughly professional job, worthy of THE formerly world class Powerhouse MUSEUM, which has always sponsored such displays.
But the museum has always also had an emphasis on technology, particularly as regards the application of art and design to everyday life. The emphasis on this has declined to such an extent that a very highly qualified volunteer, who has produced wonderful results in his long years of service, has written the following:
‘I have decided to stop volunteering at the Powerhouse Museum after 20 years.
Like many in the volunteer force, it is the passion to explain to the visiting public
the relevance of the collection and some of the finer points of a wide range of
technology that attracted me to volunteer at the museum. We have all done this while
enjoying the camaraderie of our fellow volunteers. I will miss the latter greatly but the
frustration of recent years with what is on display, or rather what is not on display, led me to the decision.
The last five years have seen a change in orientation from an “Applied Arts and Sciences
Museum” in favour of a “Creative Art” orientation. …With the re-orientation, we have seen a
gradual decline in attendance. In the public eye, the name of the museum is associated with
what they expect to see. The NSW Art Gallery deals with art as the name implies. The
Australian Museum deals primarily with the natural world … The Powerhouse Museum has
over time been associated with the technical world. Our visitors have been disappointed
with what was on display. The exhibitions themselves are concentrating on appearance
rather than content, with content coming second.
The above, and more, led me to the conclusion that I am wasting my time at the museum
and gave notice that I am finishing by the end of 2022. I have let it be known that should the
museum return to a technical museum I might come back. It has been a privilege to serve at
the museum with the many talented volunteers both in Ultimo and at Castle Hill.
Art is important in our civilisation, but technology is vital. Yet we are creating yet another art
display centre at Ultimo, at huge cost, and abandoning the original purpose of this
museum. ‘(Name withheld by request)
And, sadly, many others share these opinions and actions.
And finally, A report from a recent visitor:
‘Even over the past few days, the downgrading of exhibits that are not related to fashion is
continuing. For example, a huge picture advertising the Zampatti exhibition obscures the
Boulton and Watt engine as you enter the museum. The TV screen that explains the engine
has disappeared. The automated Strasbourg Clock explanation that occurred every hour no
longer functions. On the Loco #1 platform the displays have been removed, and even the
displays within the carriages and the figures of the passengers and crew have been
stripped out. The driver and fireman figures were modelled from photos of the actual 1854 people.
The whole display provided a graphic insight into the class structure of the mid-1800s.’
(Name withheld by request)
One seeks for an explanation apart from sheer ideologically driven bloody-mindedness.
Tom Lockley is a retired educator with wide experience at all levels, including as principal of a K-12 school. Academic studies included research on community involvement in education. He has a particular interest also in the field of general philosophy in education. Retired over 20 years ago, Tom has devoted much time to his lifelong interest in Australian aviation, including numerous publications and the co-ordination of the centenary celebrations for the French aviator Maurice Guillaux, who flew the Powerhouse Museum’s Bleriot in Australia April-November 1914. He has also been involved in voluntary work as archivist for the Australian Aviation Museum Bankstown 2003-2016, webmaster and part-time office assistant for the Australian Centre for Egyptology 2003-2008, and volunteer at THE Powerhouse MUSEUM since 2008. Since early 2016 he has been coordinator of an email group that has studied the Powerhouse Museum ‘move’ controversy, issuing over 70 major bulletins and maintaining his archive Website HERE.