An assessment of costs and risks of the proposed relocation of the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta: Jennifer Sanders

Following are key points regarding the Baird Government’s plans to relocate the Powerhouse to Parramatta and demolish the Powerhouse Museum at Ultimo. It is mystifying that such major and complex undertaking could be announced without a comprehensive business case or transparent evidence convincingly arguing the case for this unprecedented action.

Since the announcement on 11 April, the press has picked up on the vagueness of the costings and the plans – for example, Parramatta Council owns the site and there is no agreement over price. As well, even now concerns are being expressed by Council as to whether they should make the site available for the museum as they have their own plans for an arts and entertainment precinct like the successful and vibrant King Street Wharf at Darling Harbour.

Key cost issues:

  • The KPMG study just completed but not publicly released (and which informed the 11 April announcement), was apparently only about one option – the Powerhouse Museum to be relocated to Parramatta and the Ultimo site and building sold. The focus was to identify a site and, as far as one can surmise, cost a new museum. The scale and type of museum that was costed is unknown, as the brief is unknown. Indeed the projected cost is also unknown. Whether it is a diminution of the present Powerhouse in terms of size and ‘museum experience’ cannot be known without knowing what the brief for a Parramatta Powerhouse was.
  • Other options proposed by several key players were not costed, let alone properly considered, such as: building a satellite Powerhouse at Parramatta; building a cultural centre primarily for the Western Sydney/ Parramatta arts and culture community and drawing on collections and expertise of the State’s cultural institutions; building a museum that first and foremost develops from Western Sydney community consultation as to what type of museum the region would like – with or without the involvement of the State’s cultural institutions.
  • So there was no consideration given to other alternatives which may be more cost effective; have less destructive consequences for the Powerhouse at Ultimo; be more in sync with the cultural aspirations of Western Sydney/Parramatta; that do not sell off public land; that do not entail the considerable and as yet uncosted burden of packing up and moving the collection displayed and stored at Ultimo.
  • To expand on this last point: apparently the KPMG study was not asked to provide detailed costings of the move of the on-site stored collection to new storage – it provided only a ballpark figure. Historically and functionally integral with the Powerhouse Museum, the Ultimo Tram Depot, now the Harwood Building, at (6-8,000sqm) houses a state-of-the-art collection store in the basement containing 240,000 individual items. The store has special facilities such as climate controlled storage for fragile objects, secure storage for the arms collection, and a strong-room for high value objects. The Tram Depot also has collection management and conservation facilities; publicly accessible research library; curatorial offices; exhibition workshops and a range of back of house facilities and staff office accommodation. This facility will also be demolished and it is unknown how many of the functions and facilities in this building will be included in the Parramatta building. So a whole separate study is apparently yet to be done to detail the not inconsiderable costs for this dislocation if the plan proceeds.
  • Regarding collection storage, the Museum opened the Museum Discovery Centre at Castle Hill in 2005 – one of the first publicly accessible collection stores in Australia and a key cultural asset for Western Sydney. Due to reopen this year, 2016, after the recent addition of another publicly accessible store for collections from the Australian Museum and Sydney Living Museums, the site is reaching full capacity so new land may well need to be acquired and new collection storage facilities built to accommodate the displaced collection from the Ultimo site.
  • If this capital cost is unknown, so too are the staff costs for such a major collection project. These will be additional to the staff required to plan and build the new museum while keeping the existing museum operating successfully. While there will be some points of synergy, in effect there will be three separate work forces – running the Powerhouse Museum; planning and developing the new museum; planning for and relocating the stored collection.
  • Visitor projections for the proposed museum have not been released. This is an important source of revenue and should include a breakdown of visitor categories to take account of the changed location and, by implication, changed visitor patterns. It is likely that most of the 40% of tourist visits will be lost given the location is distant from Sydney’s tourist attractions and the difficulties of reaching the site for international, interstate or regional tourists. It is likely that the pattern of Sydney residents’ visits will change markedly given the greatly reduced accessibility of the proposed location for visitors from the north and south of Sydney. Sydney’s major transport systems are radial, and vehicle access to the site will be limited.
  • There has apparently been no community consultation seeking the input and involvement of the people of Western Sydney/Parramatta into the type of museum they would like to see developed as a ‘cultural beacon’ for their region. It is unknown if the population of the region will be  a major source of visitors to the relocated museum especially as visitor records show that they have not been avid visitors to the Powerhouse. A relocated Powerhouse may become a key attraction BUT a museum/cultural attraction informed by the wishes and desires of the people of Western Sydney and developed cognisant of the region’s distinctive history and contemporary cultural diversity would be ahead of the game in terms of community ownership.

Risk assessment:

It is not known if any risk assessment has been undertaken or is planned as part of this plan – a crucial consideration for such a major project which is characterised by uncertainty, upheaval and destruction.

  • A major area where risk will need to be assessed and managed is the collection – not only because of its half a billion dollars value but also the cultural significance of its objects ranging from international significance to national, state, regional and local significance. At one end of the spectrum is the priceless and internationally significant 1785 Boulton and Watt steam engine – the ‘Mona Lisa of the Industrial Revolution’ – as well as several major and valuable objects of technological significance such as No 1 Locomotive and the Catalina flying boat. The largest and heaviest aircraft to be hung in any museum in the world, the Catalina was installed plastic wrapped with its wings detached before the building was completed – it is ‘built-in’ so that any extraction will be a major, costly and delicate exercise. Then there are several more locomotives and stationary steam engines installed in the live steam exhibition with specially strengthened floor loadings as well as space technology suspended from the purpose-built, strengthened Boiler Hall roof.
  • A major risk in the selected Parramatta site is the flood risk inherent in the riverside site which will need to be mitigated – if indeed it can be managed. The recently opened Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane was adversely affected by the flooding of the Brisbane River because the buildings’ air conditioning units were flooded thereby leading to unacceptably high levels of humidity in the exhibition spaces. Major engineering works will need to be undertaken to mitigate any risks to the building and collection. Remember, only two sites were evaluated – yet other sites such as the Old Kings School and the Female Factory site which offer a distinctive context for a Western Sydney inspired museum were not considered.

Lost opportunities:

There is also a raft of lost opportunities inherent in the implementation of this plan:

  • The Museum’s economic contribution to the education and creative industries precinct of Ultimo/Broadway/Chippendale/Surry Hills. The Museum was moved in 1893 from a temporary building in the Domain to its new home, the Technological Museum, adjacent to the then Sydney Technical College in Ultimo, in order to develop an education precinct for the people of Sydney. The 1988 move a block down Harris Street to the renewed Ultimo Powerhouse (from which its took its new name – Powerhouse Museum), reenergised its role and contribution and has fostered the growth of UTS, the ABC, Sydney TAFE and indeed the wider community including Central Square, Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre, Broadway, Haymarket, Chippendale and Surry Hills.
  • The Museum’s economic and cultural contribution to the tourism sector as a major tourist destination in Darling Harbour. The Museum’s 2014-2015 Annual Report gives a breakdown of tourist visits to the Museum: 12% regional NSW; 18% interstate; 9% overseas – a total of 39% from outside Sydney and 61% Sydney residents. When the revitalisation of Darling Harbour is completed, the projected number of visitors is 40 million up from the present 26 million. The Powerhouse Museum is a major tourist attraction for visitors to Darling Harbour and to the Sydney CBD.
  • The economic and cultural loss of benefactors and donors who have been longstanding supporters of the Museum and who have indicated their intention to redirect their donations and bequests to interstate institutions. The Museum’s overall success relies on the support of donors and benefactors. Since 1984, objects worth a total of more than $20m were sponsored or donated to the Museum. Recurrent funds accounted for just $6m of acquisitions. If there is not active and generous support by the public of the Museum’s collection it will wither and die. Yes, new collection donors and benefactors may step up from its new audiences but traditionally, the Museum’s benefactors are drawn from longstanding supporters from a demographic that the Museum has lost and risks diminishing further if this relocation goes ahead.
  • The massive loss of the heritage values of the site and buildings which are significant remnants of New South Wales’ industrial heritage and, in the Powerhouse Museum conversion – an award winning architectural masterpiece. The National Trust NSW has proposed the Powerhouse for State Heritage listing. When the Powerhouse was opened in 1988, it was not thought necessary to propose this listing as the building is a Museum and State-owned with an asset life of over 100 years.
  • Should the Ultimo site be sold, the government will have disposed of a site it owns outright – a unique 2-hectare inner city site, adjacent to a revitalised Darling Harbour and part of an energised creative precinct, easily accessible by Sydney residents and visitors from NSW, interstate and overseas and which features distinctive architectural landmarks in a sequence of award-winning buildings along Harris Street designed by Cox, Woolley, Gehry, Glendenning (NSW Government Architect’s Branch), Seidler and Neild.


Selling the Powerhouse Museum would be a wasteful destruction of high quality museum infrastructure. The Museum’s buildings are less than 30 years old and have innovative and environmentally sustainable engineering services to the highest standards still applicable today. 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 had a $25m refurbishment in the last five years. The projected income of $150m – 200m from selling the Museum’s Ultimo site and buildings will not even go close to defraying the full cost of this relocation plan and will be negated by the destruction of the existing Museum buildings and 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 at Parramatta plus paying the associated costs of moving and rehousing at collection of immense value to the people of NSW. There are far better options which would result in the ‘cultural beacon’ Western Sydney deserves.

Jennifer Sanders
April 2016