10 Reasons to Save the Powerhouse Museum: Kylie Winkworth

1. The government does not have to sell the Powerhouse Museum at Ultimo to create a new museum in Parramatta.

The NSW Government had a $2.1 billion surplus in 2014-15 and an $863m stamp duty windfall. Surpluses are projected to increase. There is no need to sell the PHM at Ultimo. Good governments expand museums and cultural opportunities. The government has the funds in its $600m cultural infrastructure budget to build a new museum in Parramatta without selling off the PHM at Ultimo. Spending some of this money on a new museum in Western Sydney is simply a question of priorities.

2. Selling the PHM will reduce access for most visitors.

No government anywhere in the world has ever moved a museum from the city centre. If the PHM at Ultimo is sold and relocated to Parramatta, this will reduce access for visitors from regional NSW, international visitors, and visitors from other parts of Sydney. The location options for a PHM in Parramatta are not as accessible as the Ultimo site, even for most visitors from Western Sydney. Around 30% of the population of NSW lives in Western Sydney. But the remaining 70% of residents from regional NSW and elsewhere in Sydney, as well as international visitors, will face long journeys to visit the relocated museum in Parramatta.  For visitors from the north, south, and east it will take an estimated 45 minutes in extra travel time to get to the PHM in Parramatta. Keeping the Ultimo PHM, and opening a new museum in Parramatta would increase access and be fair to everyone.

3. Relocating the PHM to Parramatta will shrink the museum.

Selling the PHM at Ultimo will not generate enough money to replicate the size and facilities at the PHM. This includes 20,000sqm of public space and 10,000sqm of workshop and storage space. It’s estimated the sale of the Ultimo site may realise somewhere between $150-200m. The government has only promised the sale proceeds of the Ultimo land towards a new museum. The cost of replicating the existing museum facilities at Ultimo will be upwards of $600m, not including the cost of moving the collections and building new storage. So at best the government is pledging only 1/3 of the replacement cost of the PHM. This means the government is diminishing and shrinking the PHM, not enlarging or developing access to the collections. The government has not made any guarantee that the proposed Parramatta museum will be of an equivalent size, let alone have appropriate volumes for the museum’s significant power, transport and engineering collections.

4. Selling the museum at Ultimo is a wasteful destruction of high quality cultural infrastructure.

The PHM’s Ultimo buildings are less than 30 years old. They are built for an asset life of 100+ years. Infrastructure NSW’s own review of Sydney’s cultural infrastructure says the buildings are in good condition. The museum has had a $25m refurbishment in the last five years. Selling the PHM’s Ultimo site and buildings will not realise anything like the replacement value of the museum’s exhibition infrastructure, storage and workshop facilities. The taxpayer will be the loser in the demolition and destruction of valuable cultural assets at Ultimo, while paying for a smaller new museum in Parramatta.

5. The proposal is based on faulty logic.

The reasons the government has cited for moving the museum to Parramatta (falling visitor numbers, declining school visits) are not related to its location and will not be solved by selling off the Ultimo site and building a smaller, less accessible museum in Parramatta. Visitor numbers at the Powerhouse were up 12% in 2015. The new Goods Line walkway from Central is improving access. On the question of declining school visits cited as a reason to move the museum, this is due to education positions at the PHM being cut from 27 in 2005 to just three in 2015. The museum’s performance has been affected by deep cuts to staff numbers and its recurrent budget. These critical issues will not be fixed by moving the museum to Parramatta.

6. The proposal to move all the collections from Ultimo is costly, risky and wasteful.

There are around 450,000 objects in the PMH’s exhibition halls and specialised storage at Ultimo. Moving these complex and fragile objects will entail huge risks and logistical challenges. It will mean buying a new site for museum storage; and designing and building a high spec, secure storage facility with specialised conditions for different types of objects. Then documenting, packing, transporting, unpacking and installing 450,000 unique objects in new storage. It will entail heroic challenges moving complex, large and important objects such as the internationally significant Boulton and Watt beam engine, locomotive No 1, rail carriages, the suspended Catalina flying boat, buses, cars, carriages, space technology and steam engines. Recent estimates put the cost of moving the collections at $500m. This is more than double the estimated price for the museum’s land. And there is no cultural benefit for Western Sydney in moving the collections from one store to another. The only outcome will be to clear the Ultimo land so developers can build more units. The half a billion dollar cost of a risky and pointless moving exercise, could be better spent on museum infrastructure projects across NSW.

7. The proposed sale and closure of the PHM will shrink access to the collections.
Based on the government’s figures, the move of the PHM to Parramatta will result in a smaller museum and mean that even more of the PHM collections will go into storage. Already more than 97% of the PHM’s great collections are in storage. Of particular concern is the fate of the museum’s internationally significant design collections, which are almost entirely in storage and which have not figured in the government’s discussions for a science and technology museum at Parramatta. The government’s recent promise to increase the museum objects on display in the new Parramatta museum by 50% is negligible. It says that there are 6,500 objects on display in the PHM at Ultimo, which is just 1.3% of the collection. An increase of 50% is still less than 2% of the collection on exhibition. Keeping the PHM at Ultimo and adding a new museum at Parramatta would have a much greater impact in sharing more of the museum’s collections.

8. The Powerhouse Museum cannot be moved, it IS the PHM at Ultimo.
The identity, design and exhibitions in the Powerhouse are inextricably linked to its iconic building, its history and context in the historic Ultimo Power Station. The building’s great volumes and soaring industrial spaces are an impressive and fitting context for the museum’s engineering, power and transport collections. One cannot take the PHM out of the Ultimo Power House and still have the same museum.  The PHM’s brand is built around the Ultimo Power House and this can’t be moved to a modern building in Parramatta. Whatever new museum the government builds at Parramatta, the Powerhouse Museum will be demolished and its PHM identity and brand will be finished.

9. 120 years of history and education at Ultimo will be lost.
The Powerhouse Museum has been part of the education and community context of Ultimo since the opening of the Technological Museum in 1893. The historic PHM at Ultimo is part of a web of community and research connections linked to Sydney’s education, innovation and design industries. Its partners include TAFE, UTS, the ABC and many design, digital and start up enterprises. These networks will be ruptured if the PHM at Ultimo is closed. Of course a relocated museum will establish new partnerships in Western Sydney, but these will not replace what is lost with the demolition of the Ultimo museum. A more rational and visionary solution would be to build a new museum in Parramatta as a creative partner to the PHM in Ultimo.

10. Closing the PHM in Ultimo will affect the tourism and cultural economy of Darling Harbour.
International, interstate, and regional visitors are around 40% of the audiences of the PHM at Ultimo. Many stay in hotels in the area and shop and eat locally. The PHM is a vital part of the tourism and cultural economy of Darling Harbour, where it’s long been part of an affordable holiday or day out for families.  Darling Harbour attracts 26m visitors a year and this will grow with massive redevelopment in Darling Harbour and Barangaroo. With all this investment in tourism infrastructure, it makes no sense to close a family friendly cultural attraction on the western edge of the city.

Kylie Winkworth
18 March 2016

Featured photo by OZinOH/Flickr.