Moving Museum Collections – Lindsay Sharp

There is NO public interest purpose or museological case for moving the 240,000 objects stored on the PHM site at Ultimo to a less accessible location, remote from the museum’s public sites. Apart from the ludicrous costs and risks to the collection, for no cultural outcome whatsoever, such a move can only diminish public access, education opportunities and curatorial work with the museum’s knowledge base.

The PHM is uniquely fortunate to have such a large proportion of its collection ideally stored on its main public site, where access is an integral part of the museum’s education and engagement programs. No major state or national museum anywhere in the world has ever moved such a large collection from purpose built, environmentally zoned, high quality, secure and accessible storage which was designed to safeguard the museum’s collections for centuries.

The proposal to move the PHM’s collection from Ultimo is UNPRECEDENTED in the history of museum planning and development anywhere in the world. What is known of the government’s plans to ‘move’ the museum and its collections represents a substantial downgrading of museum facilities, resources and capacity from the what the PHM currently owns and controls at Ultimo. The PHM’s collections are the legacy of donors and benefactors past and present. They are a gift from one generation to the next. The collections are NOT the assets of the current government, to be deployed for political advantage. The MAAS trustees must safeguard the collections which they hold in trust for current and future generations.

‘First do no harm’. As with medicine so with museology. A museum’s collection is its core DNA. The knowledge of its staff is its creative intellect; the primary source of its key role of meaning-making/visitor engagement. In 1978 MAAS had innumerable problems, especially the state of its collections storage: environments leading to object degradation caused by every negative imaginable. Many large objects were ‘stored’ in sheds/fields – a nightmare. In 1979 the priority was to convert Ultimo’s tram shed to a state of the art integrated collection handling and storage facility.  Climate-controlled, particulate-free, doubly protected against flooding, with adjacent conservation, registration, restoration and photographic facilities meaning object analysis, preservation and internal movement was safe, cost effective, world class. The Harwood Building helped save approximately 500,000 collection items. A massive conservation project seldom matched globally. A ‘machine’ for collection handling – efficient owing to proximity to the main museum buildings – and its fit-for-purpose design.

In 2017 the situation is unrecognisable. The expanded Centre at Castle Hill absorbed around half of the collection. Recently MAAS moved 10,000 items, but its  logistics, time taken, resources required and risk assessment or damage to transported objects are unknown. Dedicated MAAS staff, if permitted by senior management, will have been meticulous. Some reports about recent outside movement in other cases do not drive confidence in outsourcing. Only best practice movement protocols must be applied.

An unnecessary, politically mandated, time-compressed move of 300,000 items with the limited number of staff means that this correct approach would be very lengthy, spatially constricted and yet carry higher risk to objects and operatives alike if under time and cost pressures. Another labour intensive change, making tracking more efficient, is RFID bar-coding of shelves/object tags. Not all items (very few?) have been thus recorded. Photographing of all objects is the proper standard to guarantee risk reduction and handling/condition/accident reporting accuracy.  In (or after) the latest exercise, management told staff not to photograph objects as it slows their transfer, even though this would be useful to check condition changes during storage and serve as a good baseline for future checks of objects that have not had conservation photos done for years. It would also categorically define condition before, during and after transport. This omission is unacceptable in professional terms. The resource demands outlined far exceed those currently possessed by MAAS an issue which is exacerbated by the likelihood that none of the museum’s senior managers have direct, long term experience in handling safely the type of significant industrial, transport and engineering objects so wonderfully represented in MAAS collections. Or managing such a massive and variegated collection. The concern must be addressed as to their apparent specialisation in art or moving image collections as opposed to those representing, for example, historical and industrial genres.

Many smaller items require comprehensive, specialised packing and handling. Skills available to MAAS have been savagely depleted due mainly to the flensing of staff positions owing to so-called ‘efficiency dividends’ and the avoidable, but real loss of staff down to policy disillusionment.  Only approximately 50 staff remain in relevant fields. A full skills analysis and validated labour availability plan is required before project initiation. It is part of a complete, essential risk assessment plan. The collection move – using simple math – if done properly will divert relevant staff from all other duties for years. External conservation and registration expertise has shrunk as training courses wound down at advanced educational institutions across Australia. Overseas consultants will be expensive. A second part of the collections move project planning is a full, accurate, comprehensive cost plan based on best practice.

The Harwood Building meanwhile has been maintained professionally and is worth possibly over $100 million in real terms – so its loss is a complete waste. Materials stored there now are in an optimal condition having been the subject of immense dedication by curators, conservators and registration experts for nearly four decades. When looking at such a travesty of museological principles it is the responsibility of professionals to first point out the fundamental folly and waste of such a move and then to carry out an exhaustive analysis of resource, risks and cost which establishes compelling evidence supporting rejection of the flawed proposal. To do so requires prudent courage – the bravery required to speak truth to power.

Collection move risk-assessment is a core responsibility of the Director who must report their well-founded, evidence-based analysis to the Board of Trustees, who then must judge the report and inform the Minister and Government of the appropriate course of action from the Board’s perspective. Whether Government accepts the recommendation of Director and Board is a matter for Government. Should this present Government continue with its chosen direction, so long as a correctly evidenced, balanced and professionally argued document has presented risks, resource requirement and costs, Government carries the responsibility of any decision. If MAAS does not fully and clearly outline the evidence in each heading it runs the risk of being subsequently blamed if things go wrong. In general a Government of this calibre tends to try to shield itself by claiming some kind of natural confidentiality. This is a mechanism by which it seeks to escape public responsibility through secrecy.  Governments of this calibre are also prone to hide damage to objects and unforseen negative events, blame the institution nominally responsible and fail to adequately honour any indemnity it has offered. They will repeatedly spin or obscure key facts as they have recently done over total project cost.

The likelihood of obtaining full insurance for a move of this magnitude even with a thorough risk assessment is likely to be low and, if obtained, likely to be cost prohibitive. Longer term risks are also to be analysed in any competent, comprehensive ‘collection move’ risk assessment report. Additional unavoidable handling costs and risks in the future because the collection is divorced from exhibition/curatorial areas will be difficult to calculate so the most conservative (expensive, complicated) view prudentially must be taken. Estimation of flooding risk on the Riverbank site will also be very challenging and, once again, the most prudential estimation is required (expensive, complex). Even then the climatic, hydrological and architectural/engineering risks will increase with time and must be prudentially estimated on a conservative (expensive, complex) basis. There are more risk issues including the obvious one of mishandling and accidents to personnel, insufficient protection and so on as has actually occurred in the recent past. Government may well claim full, professional estimation of required resources and risks is unnecessarily draconian and expensive and attempt to reduce it in complexity and cost through accounting techniques that are inappropriate. Remember, this Government will probably not be around as and when these risks and costs begin to manifest themselves. If it is it will almost certainly seek to hide negative outcomes, force MAAS to do so or blame MAAS behind a veil of secrecy. One has to feel sympathy for the MAAS Board in this situation.

Risk assessment of any move of this magnitude is a core part of any business case. Those undertaking it must be deeply and broadly experienced and must probably take independent advice from overseas. Skill-sets based on experience on this scale and with collections such as this is thin on the ground not only here in Australia but even in UK and the USA. Ultimately risk assessment will continue to lie with the Director on behalf of MAAS senior staff. This is a core responsibility and they must, professionally, have inner fortitude to speak truth to power. The idea that Castle Hill may take most of the larger objects and hundreds of thousands of the smaller objects as a centre of excellence is a complete furphy. It cannot possibly display the world class large objects in a way even remotely as good as their present circumstances. Even if the TAFE site is acquired for this purpose there is a total waste of hundreds of millions of dollars of fit-for-purpose facilities in Ultimo and new, expensive facilities to be constructed.

Finally to the Boulton and Watt Beam Engine and the Catalina  (‘just one aircraft’ as a very senior member of this Government has recently described it). These are just two extremely significant items among many but looking at the challenges in their regard is instructive.

The Boulton and Watt Beam Engine is unique and priceless. As it ages its constituent parts made of cast iron and specialised bronze and steels, generally become more brittle. In 1981, faced with the unavoidable but risky move to Castle Hill then, after conservation, back to be steamed at the Powerhouse Museum, the museum knew it needed sage pragmatic advice. We turned – after consulting with London’s venerable Science Museum –  to Jonathan Minns. He was a world expert. As the Guardian Obituary demonstrated, Norm Harwood, and other local engineers, drank at the fount of knowledge represented by Jonathan who visited Sydney for extended periods at least twice. He noted that moving the Boulton and Watt once was risky, and that moving it twice definitely so. He warned against ever trying to move it again: ‘You are unlikely to be that lucky’. This is not to say one cannot chance one’s arm and move it a third time only that the risk is materially heightened with its increasingly brittle condition so that something really bad may well occur no matter how ‘careful’ the engineers are. Once broken the beam is not in operable or even displayable condition, he said. We were in no position to disagree.

The engine was never a single lump of metal, but was made in parts, evolving over years, and supported by the building in which it was installed; as well as the working parts, there are tank panels, large timber and iron supports, stairs and access platforms, plus a stand for the cylinder; and the wall behind supports various elements. The engine would need to be broken down very cautiously into sections, and re-erecting it in the correct configuration would not be a trivial task. If damage occurred in a third move the world would laugh at these colonials who did not, perhaps, realise that they did not know what they did not know and failed to ask those who did.  Of whom there are very few left. Further due diligence is being undertaken by this author. That is why it and other steam engines were installed in permanent, steamed conditions (expensive and quite complex) in the Powerhouse Museum and maintained in situ by skilled staff to this day. The word ‘carefully’ does not begin to describe the risk. An entirely unnecessary one at that. The skill sets developed during this heroic process are almost lost to MAAS now. In the case of Norm and Jonathan they are gone along with a host of even then elderly and wonderful volunteers. One might ask whether MAAS management intends steaming engines at Parramatta, as the infrastructure for this would be very expensive. A reasonable guess is that they will turn the engines off and direct the drivers into object-handling duties if they wish to stay on staff. They have already been diverted to such work, to the detriment of the steaming program and perhaps of the engines. If the engines are turned off forever, they will need to be serviced thoroughly and lubricated to best practice standards. First do no harm.

The Catalina: The architectural, engineering, demolition, object displacement, and other risk factors associated with moving the Catalina aircraft are exceptionally complex and entirely non-trivial. Given the risks and complexities – there is insufficient space here to begin to describe them – it is a very courageous Minister indeed who forces the MAAS to try to ‘move’ this object.  Retired MAAS staff members could give chapter and verse on these risks and costs for the Catalina, as can the original architect. Listening carefully to wise and experienced heads one begins to realise that the senior member of Government who said: ‘it is just one aircraft’ may not have fully grasped the situation.

Government in NSW is pursuing a risky and costly path for political, not cultural, reasons with this project and perhaps is doing so for reasons devolved from Development pressures. Supporters of the Powerhouse Museum, especially experienced museologists, broadly understand these risks, resource requirements and costs. We all agree Parramatta and greater Western Sydney deserve a new, creative museum. But we do not credit this Government with even a modicum of planning ability or common sense. This domain alone – the collections ‘move’ – illustrates how sub-optimal they are and does no favours to a MAAS Board or senior management who have not yet publicly indicated their reasoned concerns. Going on the recent SMH article (‘Time to take off – a new idea has landed’, 9 November, 2017), apparently some senior staff continue in failing to recognise how challenging this issue will become. The fundamental professional fact here is that no international-class museum considers moving its collections from optimal conditions to a less satisfactory museological circumstance unless they have been threatened by a clear potential for catastrophic risk or damage. The record of a world-class museum moving collections on this scale for any lesser reason is consequently thin indeed.

Dr Lindsay Sharp, October 2017