It’s Time to Re-Think the Move of the Powerhouse Museum – Kylie Winkworth

Kylie Winkworth, Powerhouse Museum Alliance November 2019

1 The Move of the Powerhouse does not Stack Up

1.1 After five years of community opposition to the ‘move’ of the Powerhouse Museum (PHM) to Parramatta it is time for a re-think. Closing the Powerhouse is not a fait accompli. The government can keep the Powerhouse and build an iconic new cultural facility at Parramatta based on the winning competition design. This would be cheaper and easier to deliver on time and on budget.

1.2 The recent planning review of Pyrmont Ultimo, and the draft strategy for the Central Precinct now on exhibition, should prompt a re-think on keeping the Powerhouse Museum intact. With increasing population density and development, it does not make economic sense to close an internationally renowned museum which has been in Ultimo since 1893, especially when the Powerhouse collection is uniquely related to the innovation vision for the Central Precinct.

1.3 If the Powerhouse is demolished the community will lose 2.6 hectares of cultural and open space, along with architecturally significant buildings, access to the museum’s historic collections, and a specialist library serving researchers, neighbouring education institutions and museum volunteers from regional NSW. The popular Goods Line walkway will be over-shadowed by a seventy storey tower block, with a substantial loss of amenity in the precinct.

1.4 Density can be done well, but it requires more high quality public spaces and cultural facilities, not less. Keeping the Powerhouse intact as a fully functioning museum is essential for the cultural life, liveability, heritage and economy of Pyrmont Ultimo and the Central Precinct, and for all the residents of Sydney and NSW.

1.5 The Powerhouse Museum was built only 31 years ago. It has world’s best practice exhibition, collection and research facilities, all on the one site. The museum has one of the world’s great exhibitions of power and transport, brilliantly displayed in the building that powered Sydney’s transport and industry. It would be tragic to demolish this remarkable museum that is accessible to everyone, especially when the business case papers reveal that the proposed contemporary STEAM museum in Parramatta will be only half the size of the Powerhouse.

1.6 The deepening drought in regional NSW underlines the wasteful expenditure of $1.5b moving the Powerhouse. With communities in western Sydney and regional NSW needing hospitals, schools and water infrastructure, the project is extravagant and poor value for money.  Most people can see that it does not make economic sense to demolish a fit for purpose public museum that is only 31 years old, just to move the museum 23ks west , beyond the reach of tourists and visitors from other parts of Sydney and regional NSW. The relocation of the Powerhouse is in stark contrast to the miserable funding for museums in regional NSW. Just 10% of the cost of moving the Powerhouse would build 10 new regional museums in towns and cities across NSW.

1.7 The basis for the destruction of the Powerhouse is a land grab to benefit developers. The government does not have community consent for the project. It has failed to understand community attachment to the Powerhouse, a much loved museum which is part of the childhood memories of a generation of NSW residents. Everyone is asking ‘why not keep the Powerhouse and build a new museum at Parramatta?’ The government has not answered this question.

2 Key Issues

2.1 The government has failed to recognise the economic value of heritage and museums as major tourism attractions. Cultural and heritage visitors spent $14b in NSW last year. High value international cultural and heritage tourists accounted for 74% of this expenditure and 70% of visitor nights. Visiting history/ heritage buildings, sites and monuments is the most popular activity for international visitors at 68%.[1] Attending theatre, concerts and the performing arts attracts just 17% of international cultural visitors, yet most of the cultural infrastructure funding is going into performing arts facilities. It is even proposed to turn the Powerhouse into a lyric theatre. While the UK has built a thriving tourism industry around its industrial heritage, the Powerhouse Museum is the only major site in Sydney that tells this important story. Tourism figures highlight the startling mismatch between what visitors are interested in seeing, and where the government is making its major cultural infrastructure investments.

2.2 The Powerhouse Museum has been in Ultimo since 1893, at the centre of an education, design and technology hub. It does not need to be turned into a creative industries precinct; it has been one since 1893. The mooted creative industries precinct to be left somewhere on the Powerhouse site after the collections have been evicted will be less than 10% of the size of the current museum. The Powerhouse is the only museum in Sydney showing the state’s heritage collections of technology, industry and decorative arts. A bias towards funding for contemporary art and performance facilities instead of museums means that Sydney is not telling the story of NSW, and not showing the state’s significant heritage collections that are hidden in storage.[2] A cultural industries hub with studios for artists has a far lower economic impact than the Powerhouse Museum with a suite of diverse exhibitions serving tourists 364 days a year.

2.3 Investment in museums in Sydney has not kept pace with population growth. The state government has not built a major new museum since the Powerhouse opened in 1988. Since then, the population of Sydney has increased by more than 30%. With more than $2b spent on three stadiums between the city and Parramatta, it is nonsense to suggest that Sydney can’t afford to open a new museum in Parramatta without selling off the Powerhouse, especially with more than 98% of the PHM’s collections in storage. Sydney needs more museums, and more investment in heritage places and attractions, not spurious museum recycling.    

2.4 The opening of the Goods Line walkway from Central has improved access and linked the museum along a spine of education, innovation and creative enterprises. A recent editorial in The Burlington Magazine, the world’s leading journal for fine and decorative arts, criticised the government’s intransigence on the move as ‘sad and unnecessary’. The editorial concluded that the museum’s ‘ideal and accessible setting …makes it all the more shameful that the Powerhouse Museum is now to be so pointlessly and wastefully uprooted’.[3] The unprecedented destruction of the Powerhouse Museum is damaging Sydney’s cultural reputation here and overseas.

2.5 The Powerhouse Museum is not being moved to Parramatta. It is being destroyed. [4] Under the government’s plans, the museum’s historic tram depot, known as the Harwood building, and its Sulman award winning Wran building will be demolished. The museum’s mission as Australia’s only museum of applied arts and sciences will be reduced to a ‘future focussed contemporary science, technology and innovation’ museum at Parramatta.  The central focus of the PHM’s transport and engineering displays, interpreting the industrial revolution in an Australian and international context, will not be replicated at Parramatta, nor can the museum’s spectacular industrial spaces be re-created. The PHM is already morphing into a contemporary art centre, with more artist installations and commissions, while its incredible heritage collections are left in storage. If this is a preview of Parramatta’s future-focussed contemporary museum, why is it necessary to demolish the Powerhouse?

2.6 The Sulman award winning Powerhouse Museum is only 31 years old. It has state of the art infrastructure built for a working life of more than 100 years. Demolishing award winning, architecturally distinguished museum buildings and infrastructure is utterly wasteful. And wrecking an historic public museum as if it just another piece of disposable architecture makes a mockery of the sustainability claims for the Parramatta museum. Over the last nine years the government has cut the PHM’s staff and budget, and starved it of maintenance funds, to bolster a spurious case for the museum’s demolition. The Powerhouse needs basic maintenance and the renewal of its exhibitions, not demolition. The PMA estimates this will cost $100-$200m over four years. This is less than the cost of moving the collections.

2.7 More than $100m is being wasted moving the collections from the PHM’s state of the art facilities at Ultimo into smaller, less accessible and inferior facilities at the Museums Discovery Centre at Castle Hill. This is just to clear the Ultimo site for property development. There was no risk assessment or total project budget for this work. There is no plan or budget for the storage of the museum’s very large objects, most of which will never be displayed at Parramatta. This is reckless, unnecessary, and a shocking waste of money.

2.8 The demolition of the Powerhouse Museum is unprecedented. No government anywhere in the world has ever closed a major state museum to move it out of the city centre into less accessible, smaller and inferior facilities to what the museum already owns. The secret business case papers contradict the government’s media statements that the Parramatta museum will be the largest museum in NSW. Analysis of the papers reveals that the Parramatta museum will be only half the size of the Powerhouse, with inferior collection facilities to what the museum owns at Ultimo.[5]

2.9 The decision to close the Powerhouse did not consider the impact on regional communities. The Parramatta museum will be less accessible to country visitors and to people from the Illawarra, the Central Coast and Southern Highlands. Travelling to the Powerhouse at Ultimo is quicker and simpler for residents in other parts of Sydney, such as Campbelltown and Caringbah, than getting to Parramatta. In moving to Parramatta, the new museum will lose large sections of its current audiences among international, interstate and regional visitors, as well as visitors living in other parts of Sydney.

2.10 The government does not have a social license or community consent to sell the PHM. While some may argue that the government has a mandate to ‘move’ the Powerhouse, it does not own the museum and its collections. Opposition to the wasteful and destructive move of the museum continues from the community and cultural leaders, here and overseas, and from donors, former trustees and volunteers. Nine former directors of state and national museums have condemned the move.

2.11 The Powerhouse belongs to the people of NSW not the government.  The PHM’s land, property and collection assets are owned by the trustees of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS), held in trust for current and future generations. Trusteeship is there to protect the public interest and defend the museum and its collection from ill-conceived policies and assaults on its property. It is outside all norms of museum governance for the government to direct the Trustees to give up the PHM’s Ultimo facilities when the Parramatta museum site is inferior and less accessible to visitors. The ill-considered selection of a flood prone riverbank as the site for the new museum was described by Australia’s foremost expert on river hydrology as a threat to life and the collections.[6]

2.12 The government’s actions are undermining public trust in the museum and its custodianship of the PHM’s internationally significant collections.  The MAAS annual reports document a collapse in donations to the collection. Major donors, Life Fellows and former trustees have never been consulted on the move. Long term donors are changing their wills, and notable collections once destined for the Powerhouse are going interstate.

2.13 In mandating the move of the Powerhouse to Parramatta the government has ignored opportunities for a new museum that would better connect with the diverse communities in western Sydney.[7] It has overlooked the identified priorities in Parramatta Council’s cultural strategy. And it has ignored community preference for a history museum, expressed in belated consultations held in 2017. The basic tenets of museum planning have been ignored at every stage in the project. [8] A museum is not an infrastructure delivery project. It is not about an iconic building. A museum is an intergenerational commitment that must start with the question ‘what kind of museum does the community want?’ That question was never asked.

2.14 The enormous opportunity costs of ‘moving’ the Powerhouse have never been examined.  There are major gaps in the profile of NSW museums which the costly ‘move’ of the PHM to Parramatta does nothing to address. NSW has no state museum responsible for NSW history, no museum about migration and settlement in NSW, and no museum about Aboriginal culture and history, all of which are central to Parramatta’s history and contemporary cultures. While successful global cities are expanding their museums, Sydney is actually shrinking its museum offering.

2.15 There is no legitimate case to ‘move’ the PHM. Over five years of community debate and a long running Legislative Council inquiry into museums and galleries, the government has failed to make the case for why the Powerhouse must be closed and moved to Parramatta. In dozens of detailed submissions to the Inquiry museum experts explained the flaws in the government’s unprecedented decision and suggested alternatives. None of the critical issues raised by museum experts have been addressed, nor answered in the government’s response to the Inquiry’s report. Instead there has been an inexplicable intransigence.

2.16 From the time Premier Mike Baird announced the move of the Powerhouse in November 2014, the rationale and basis for the project has fallen apart. The Powerhouse had to move because it was not in a cultural precinct said Infrastructure NSW. Now it is back in a cultural precinct, as it has been since 1893. The Powerhouse was in poor condition and too costly to repair. The government’s own commissioned report rated the museum’s built assets and infrastructure as good. Proponents claimed the new museum could be funded from the sale of the PHM’s land with money left over. The PMA said it would cost $1.5b and did not make economic sense. The first go at a business case came back with a negative Benefit Cost Ratio of 0.435. An extended final business case in 2018 revealed a BCR of just 1.02. This was only achieved by cutting costs out of the project, and predicating the Parramatta museum on massive apartment towers at both Ultimo and Parramatta.

2.17 Since then, the project parameters have changed. The super tower development on the museum site at Parramatta has been deleted. The Planetarium has gone, impacting the new museum’s income. Historic Willow Grove will not be demolished, cancelling $60m in development rights.[9]  There are higher costs in expanding the museum store at Castle Hill; and increased costs in keeping some ‘cultural presence’ at Ultimo. New business cases have been prepared, but to date have not been assessed in totality. In our view the combined BCR for the three projects: the Parramatta museum, the new storage at Castle Hill and the remnant Creative Industries Precinct at Ultimo, is likely below a negative 0.5. This must prompt a re-think.

2.18 The base case of keeping the Powerhouse and building a new museum at Parramatta was never considered. In fact the government can build an iconic new museum or cultural facility at Parramatta and keep the Powerhouse for less than the cost of its museum demolition plan.

2.19 Wishful thinking has marked every step in the PHM to Parramatta saga. Premier Baird said the Parramatta museum would be open in time for the 2019 state election.[10] The PMA said it would take 10 years. Five years on, not a sod has been turned.  The project is already a year behind last year’s schedule.[11]  The government said the whole Powerhouse would be relocated to Parramatta.[12] This is not true. The project is now a complicated compromise: a cut down version of the Powerhouse at Parramatta, most of the collection crowded into inferior storage facilities at Castle Hill, a lyric theatre and remnant display space at Ultimo, and many of the museum’s significant large objects left without a home.

2.20 The scope-creep and poor management that has marked the Walsh Bay project, with a 150% budget blowout, is on track to be repeated in the PHM to Parramatta museum demolition plan. Total project costs have not been accounted for in the business case. The Parramatta museum is based on wildly optimistic visitor projections.[13] There is a dearth of museum planning expertise at every level of the project. MAAS has had four directors in six years, which is unprecedented in the museum business or any cultural enterprise. Of the seven principal officers listed in the 2018 annual report only one is still working at the museum. There is no one on the MAAS Trust with museum or collection expertise. And there is no one at any level of the project structure who has substantial experience in museum planning. This is akin to building a new hospital with no advice from health professionals. It is exposing the state’s priceless heritage collections of technology and decorative arts to absurd and unnecessary risk.

3 The Way Forward

3.1 The government can deliver its promise of a new museum for Parramatta and simplify the project’s costs and risks by keeping the Powerhouse Museum, and proceeding with the winning design for the Parramatta museum. Risks and costs will be lower if MAAS is not simultaneously moving its vast collection, building new storage, planning the Parramatta museum, and planning the remnant display space left at Ultimo. Design constraints and costs for the Parramatta museum will be reduced if the building does not have to accommodate a large display of heavy engineering and transport objects.  More importantly, the concept and content of the Parramatta museum will be more attuned to Parramatta’s ambitions for an arts and cultural centre if it is not yoked to the pretence of relocating the Powerhouse and its heritage collections.

3.2 The Powerhouse Museum must stay intact in Ultimo as one of the ‘destination’ cultural and tourism attractions in the Central Precinct and Pyrmont Ultimo, where it is accessible to tourists and the people of NSW. The PHM’s historic mission as Australia’s only museum of applied arts and sciences must be preserved and renewed.

3.3 The destructive proposal for a lyric theatre in the heritage shell of the Powerhouse must be rejected. A purpose-designed lyric theatre should be considered in the plans for the Central Precinct.

3.4 NSW needs a fair and equitable museum plan, including strategies for museum development in regional NSW and western Sydney and landmark museums in Sydney. Cultural equity matters for museums and communities across NSW. One extravagant museum project in Parramatta is not a plan, nor is it fair or equitable.

The consistent position of the PMA since its formation in late 2014 is:

  • The Powerhouse Museum must remain intact at Ultimo as the flagship museum for MAAS, where it has been part of the education, design and creative life of Sydney since 1893. The MAAS Trust must retain control over the museum’s property and collection.
  • Parramatta should have a new museum or cultural facility that is unique to its cultures, place and stories, based on community cultural priorities and transparent consultation.
  • The government should prepare a fair and equitable museum plan for NSW, which supports museums and communities in Western Sydney and regional NSW, andlandmark museums in Sydney.                                                      



[2] Major projects include: $350m for the Walsh Bay arts precinct, $202m for the Sydney Opera House, and $244m for Sydney Modern. Other contemporary art centres include nearby Carriageworks and the MCA. The $18m refurbishment of the Hyde Park Barracks was funded from the sale of air space rights. The Australian Museum received $50m.


[4] Jennifer Sanders, The Powerhouse Museum, A Tale of Two Destructions: Conflagration Followed 137 years later by Expropriation and Demolition. Australia ICOMOS Lecture 1 October 2019

[5] Kylie Winkworth: Shrinking the Powerhouse to Parramatta: Lies, Spin and Delusions, November 2018

[6] Dr John Macintosh, submission to the Legislative Council Inquiry into Museums and Galleries, 18 December 2017 See also Parramatta Flash Flood Risk: Nine Minutes to Escape, SMH, February 19, 2019

[7] The Willingness to Pay Study only tested a narrow set of themes that have no particular resonance for the culturally diverse communities of Parramatta, or their stated cultural priorities: space travel; science technology and engineering; screen based culture; applied arts; mathematics; climate; pop culture; health and medicine. CaPPRe Pty Ltd, attachment H, September 2017

[8] Kylie Winkworth, Museum Planning 101,  May 2018

[9] Government Says it will Keep Properties but Budgets for their Sale, SMH, February 19, 2019

[10] Powerhouse Museum Site in Ultimo to be Sold to Developers, SMH, February 26, 2015

[11] The schedule in the final business papers has the design competition process finalised by Q4 2018. It is now due to be announced in December 2019.  DA submission and approval should have been completed by Q4 2019. Johnstaff, Final Business Case (Supplement) The New Museum in Western Sydney, 24 April 2018, version 6.0, p. 9; and Johnstaff The New Museum in Western Sydney Final Business Case, version 4.0, 8 January 2018, p.11

[12] Powerhouse Museum will completely relocate to new premises in Parramatta…. Media Release, 28 April 2018

[13] Visitor forecasts were modelled on historic visitor numbers to the PHM and took no account of the probable decline of regional, interstate and international visitors, or current visitation to western Sydney cultural institutions. Johnstaff, Final Business Case: The New Museum in Western Sydney, 8 January 2018, version 4.0, p.63