Does the Powerhouse Have a Future? by Todd Packer

Published in Artichoke, Australia’s interiors and design magazine, Issue no 55, June 2016, P14: 


Think about what inspired you on your first visit to Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. For me it was the moment I emerged through a tiny opening, high up in the vast industrial cavern of the repurposed turbine hall, and came eye-to-eye with a Catalina flying boat, suspended in a frozen mid-flight tableau. The museum is loved for many different reasons.

But there are changes planned for the Powerhouse. The New South Wales Government plans to relocate the museum to Parramatta and sell the existing site for redevelopment, with the proceeds of the sale going towards the new museum. The move to Parramatta is part of a wider plan to develop an arts and culture precinct in the west.

But can you just pick up a museum and move it?

The Powerhouse Museum is the major arm of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS), which has existed in Ultimo in different guises for longer than one hundred and twenty years. MAAS is the custodian of an amazing and diverse collection that covers everything from science, engineering and medicine to design, contemporary culture and the decorative arts.

But the Powerhouse is more than a display case for showing off selected items from the MAAS collection. The museum is a vital part of Ultimo itself – and a living symbol of Sydney’s industrial, technological and social heritage.

Ultimo’s warehouses and industrial buildings, on the fringe of Sydney’s CBD, were originally built to drive the development of Australia’s nineteenth-century economy. Today, the NSW Department of Industry is promoting the growth of a Digital Creative Knowledge Hub in Ultimo – a precinct focused on research, development and commercialization in the innovation economy. In fact, the area boasts the highest density of technology and digital startups in Australia.

But precincts don’t develop through govern-ment policy alone. Rather, this initiative leverages the cultural, corporate, government and education organizations already well established in Ultimo, from the ABC, TAFE NSW and the University of Technology, Sydney to IBM, Google, Fairfax and Network Ten. And right in the centre of this hub is the Powerhouse Museum, with its focus on design, technology and innovation.

The museum is also central to a broader creative industries arc stretching from the CBD’s south-west to its south-east, encom-passing Pyrmont, Ultimo, Haymarket, Eveleigh, Waterloo, Surry Hills and Moore Park. Not surprisingly, many design firms and related businesses make their home in this precinct.

But in an age where technology allows a designer to work from Byron Bay or Botswana, connected via the cloud to an office in London, does a creative industries precinct really have any currency?

Undoubtedly, the digital age brings endless possibilities in terms of global networking and collaboration. But for the many creative businesses that choose to be based in or near Ultimo, the area offers proximity-based opportunities to collaborate, share knowledge and innovate. A precinct like this creates synergies between businesses and those that service them; it’s an ecosystem that fosters a vibrant design culture and strengthens the local design industry.

The design profession doesn’t usually get mentioned among the buzzwords that couch many government innovation statements. But designers are key contributors in the value chain of the new economy: they drive the processes that enable ideas to take shape as commercially viable products, services and spaces. For countries looking to gain a competitive advantage in global markets, understanding and promoting the role of design is critical.

And the Powerhouse, with its “design and science” tagline, has been effectively promoting the power of design for close to thirty years. It’s also the only museum in Australia that actively collects and records contemporary Australian industrial design.

The Design Institute of Australia (DIA) has been involved with the museum since its inception. And in return, through exhibitions, research and educational programs, the museum has played a vital role in the development of the New South Wales design industry. The DIA also collab­orated with the museum to produce the first Sydney Design Week in 1997, now one of the longest-running design festivals in the world.

But Sydney’s creative industries aren’t limited to this inner precinct. Western Sydney is Australia’s third-largest economy and the region is rapidly transforming from an industrial to a knowledge economy. Establishing a major museum will be an important step in this development. If realized well, a great new twenty-first-century cultural institution will emerge – a museum that is a vital part of Parramatta and its future at the centre of one of the state’s fastest growing regions. It also means that more of the vast MAAS collection, much of which is held in storage facilities, will have the chance to see the light of day.

But closing the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo seems like a false start for such an ambitious project.

The Powerhouse promotes a critical understanding of design as an aspect of cultural production and as an indispensable driver for economic, technological and social change. The museum, with its deep roots in Ultimo and the design community, is a place where anyone can be inspired about the future of design in Australia and the role it will play in our future prosperity. In a world that is evolving at an ever-accelerating rate, the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo has never been more important.