Powerhouse Museum Vandalism: Trevor Kennedy

Powerhouse Museum vandalism seems a monumental crime

TREVOR KENNEDY, THE AUSTRALIAN, JUNE 15, 2015 12:00AM

The Powerhouse Museum holds a wealth of information about the early days of colonisation.

The NSW government seems to be determined to prosecute one of the most outrageous acts of vandalism we have seen in many years: the destruction of the Powerhouse Museum.

It seems extraordinary that what otherwise appears to be a sensible and reasonable government would embark on such an exercise without appropriate consultation and consideration of many of the critically important aspects involved.

Just think for a moment how lucky Sydneysiders are (and have continued to be since the Queen Victoria Building was saved from demolition) for the precinct we enjoy. Start at the Art Gallery of NSW, then there is the Mint and the Barracks, Australian Museum, the Botanic Gardens, Opera House, Police Museum, Customs House, Museum of Contemporary Art, Harbour Bridge, The Rocks, SH Ervin, Observatory, Barangaroo, Darling Harbour, Maritime Museum, Chinese Gardens, Powerhouse — plus the cathedrals and other sandstone treasures. This a feast for the eyes, the heart and the soul for Australians and tourists from everywhere. Why would you want to destroy one of its gems?

Two reasons appear to be being advanced: moving the Powerhouse to Greater Western Sydney would advantage communities neglected in terms of cultural institutions, and probably the most important of all: the release of valuable land for redevelopment — the exact same argument that was advanced for the destruction of the QVB.

Clearly no politician, or anyone else for that matter, would argue that GWS is not entitled to a greater share of the cultural wealth of the nation. But putting a bulldozer through the Powerhouse is not a sensible or appropriate answer — or certainly not one that has been convincingly explained to us so far.

At this stage reasonable requests for the NSW government to pause, take a deep breath and consider alternatives have been met with a blatant: “No, the decision has been made.”

There are many ways in which GWS’s entitlements to a greater share of our cultural heritage can be achieved — not the least in using many of the wonderful historic sites that exist there. The Powerhouse, AGNSW, MCA and others have great collections that can be shared easily — indeed would benefit from the exposure — in the area.

Clearly GWS is a political powerhouse these days and will determine the future of governments. There is complete unanimity on all sides of politics to appear sympathetic to its needs and aspirations.

But surely we don’t need to put a bulldozer through the Powerhouse to achieve this. Consider a few things about this institution. It was founded in 1879 on the back of the Sydney International Exhibition. It was then called the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. It developed outstanding collections at its site on Harris Street — collections that were incapable of being accommodated at that site. Then, thanks to the courage and foresight of Neville Wran and Laurie Brereton, the decision was made to develop Darling Harbour and turn the old power house into the museum that now exists there.

It was a long and arduous process but under the guidance of the chairman, Fred Millar, and the dynamic management of director Lindsay Sharp and deputy director Jennifer Sanders, plus a team from the NSW Government Architect’s Office led by Lionel Glendenning, it became a triumph for science, applied arts and the decorative arts — a worthy and serious addition to Sydney’s cultural scene.

While there is no doubt it lost its way in some recent years, notably under the directorship of Dawn Casey, it remains one of the city’s great cultural institutions. And it is fighting its way back, as anyone who has visited the current exhibition of jewellery will attest.

There are surely better ways of handling GWS’s cultural needs than a greedy land grab. While we have been given little information about the government’s intentions, there is clearly a capacity for compromise on the property question.

There is certainly potential for development in parts of the site and adjacent areas which could help a cash-hungry government.

Secondly, there has been no information given about how, or how much it will cost, to relocate some of the institution’s most iconic treasures. How much thought has been given, for example, to shifting the internationally significant and priceless 1784 Boulton and Watt rotative steam engine. When the Powerhouse was developed, a specially built steam generation system was developed to make it work. What about Frigate Bird II, a Catalina with a wingspan of 31.7m and eight-tonne weight, which soars above visitors.

There are dozens more examples that would be difficult to fit into some new multistorey building, which the government appears to be proposing.

On top of all that is the fact the city will be bereft of representation of the decorative arts. Sure, there are bits and pieces in other institutions but nothing to compare with what the Powerhouse has, and much of which can be shared with GWS in a sensible and responsible way.

Remember also that the Powerhouse is available to all of Sydney’s schools. It is close to our major universities and is probably the most important cradle of historical information of the early days of colonisation.

When the Powerhouse was being established, it attracted the support of many of the country’s major businesses — banks, industrial concerns and so on — which poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into its development. How are they going to feel about the bulldozer rolling over their contribution?

Where is the board in all this? I am told on the one hand it was “blindsided” by the decision and on the other it is supportive of what is proposed. Whatever, it is time for it to speak up.

Jennifer Sanders has written an outstanding paper on managing the future of Sydney’s cultural precinct. Nobody is better qualified, but apparently the government has shown no interest. Is the Treasury the new mast of NSW cultural life? God and Allah help us if it is. Imagine the riots that would occur if any similar propositions were advanced about Washington’s Smithsonian or London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

Trevor Kennedy is a former journalist and editor who served on the Powerhouse board for about 10 years. He is a life fellow and life member of the institution.

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