Rally paper 1: Mike Baird’s Museum Demolition Plan: Kylie Winkworth

Kylie Winkworth is a former Trustee, and was one of four former PHM staff who spoke with others at the Save the Powerhouse rally, May 28, 2016).         Photo: Rod Bamford


Mike Baird says those who oppose the sell-off of the Powerhouse Museum are haters.
This is one of Donald Trump’s favourite insults. Many of you here are proud to be among Baird’s haters. But we’re not here as haters, we’re museum lovers.

I’m a lover of museums and the powerful impact they can have in communities. That’s why I support the proposal for a new museum in Parramatta.[1] But I’m here with museum friends and colleagues because we hate Baird’s reckless demolition plan for the Powerhouse Museum. It’s a stupid, wasteful and ill-conceived idea pushed by people who have scant knowledge, respect or understanding of museums and collections. I’m speaking as someone with 36 years working experience in museums, as a former trustee, a life fellow, and a donor to the foundation and the collection. I have also spent the last 30 years advocating for equitable funding for museums in western Sydney and regional NSW.[2] So it’s a bit rich for Mike Baird to insult as `haters’ museum experts and advocates for cultural equity, who disagree with the misnamed museum relocation plan. This is not about the eastern suburbs elites depriving the west of their share of cultural resources. No doubt it suits the government to fan this faux east versus west conflict, and have cultural interest groups squabbling like seagulls over a few chips.[3] It distracts attention from the chronic under investment in museums in NSW over the last twenty years.[4] And that’s particularly true of the O’Farrell and Baird Governments, which after five years in power have no plan for museums in NSW, and have spent next to nothing on cultural infrastructure in western Sydney or regional NSW.[5]

The Baird Government has a plan for this museum. Most of it is secret, withheld from scrutiny as cabinet in confidence.[6] But we know the first part of the plan. It says it’s going to relocate the Powerhouse to Parramatta. It is not. Let’s be clear; the government is NOT relocating the Powerhouse Museum. This government has decided the Powerhouse Museum is finished. The Baird Government plans to sell off this site to developers and demolish the museum.

This is a world first, here in Sydney. But it’s nothing to be proud of. No government anywhere in the world has ever sold off a major state museum to move it out of the city to a less accessible location. That’s why so many mild mannered museum experts are standing here in the rain. More than 11,000 citizens of NSW and museum experts signed the petition to save the Powerhouse Museum. We’ve written to MPs, tried to reason with ministers and bureaucrats, and signed the open letter to the government, among them seven emeritus directors of state and national museums. Dozens of respected museum experts oppose the government’s unprecedented plan to demolish the Powerhouse Museum. We are part of what is the biggest cultural protest in NSW since a previous LNP government sacked Utzon from the Opera House. Four decades later taxpayers are still paying for that mistake. It will be another costly mistake with long term consequences for taxpayers, the NSW budget and museums, if the government goes ahead with its museum demolition plan.

Let’s think about what the government’s museum demolition plan means, and what will be lost here. There are three major buildings on the Ultimo site:

  • The Harwood Building or stage 1 in the former Ultimo Tram Depot, with perhaps the best sawtooth roof in Sydney, (albeit reconstructed). It houses 240,000 objects in high quality secure collection storage, as well as conservation labs, photographic studio, library, archives, offices, fumigation, and huge workshops for object and exhibition preparation;
  • then there’s the restored 1899 Ultimo Power House, built to power Sydney’s tram network, with grand turbine and boiler halls that give the power and transport collections space and context;
  • And there’s the new Wran building fronting Harris St. Lionel Glendenning’s inspired entry building and galleria draws on the design language of 19th century international exhibition buildings, and specifically the 1879 Garden Palace which was the foundation of the museum.

It was Lionel Glendenning’s design for a brilliant new modern museum that won the Sulman Award in 1988, the state’s highest award for architectural excellence. So the Powerhouse Museum is three great buildings on one site.

The Powerhouse Museum opened in 1988. It was a gift to the people of NSW, to mark the bicentenary of European settlement in Australia. It is this gift which the NSW government now promises to demolish, less than 30 years after it opened. Surely no one at the opening of the Powerhouse in 1988 could have imagined that the museum would be prey to developers and up for demolition less than 30 years later. We should expect the Powerhouse Museum to be here for our grandchildren and their grandchildren. This is museum infrastructure that was built for a century and more of cultural life, with the highest quality design and materials. The replacement value of the museum infrastructure here is conservatively estimated at $600m. Taxpayers will lose all this, and have to have to pay perhaps $800m to build a smaller less accessible museum in Parramatta for no net cultural gain.[7] So this is the Baird Government’s world first museum demolition plan for a great public museum; not an achievement that any other government in the civilised world would boast about.

The threatened destruction of this museum is not just about the asset value of the infrastructure. It’s losing the impressive spaces of the turbine and boiler halls that give the power and transport collections the space they need, with room for suspended planes and working steam engines powered by live steam. Perhaps no other public museum in the world has such grand and appropriate spaces for these collections. Not forgetting too the elegant modern barrel vault housing locomotive no 1, the foundation object for public transport in NSW. Then there’s the magic of seeing the workings of the priceless 1785 Boulton and Watt beam engine. This internationally significant icon of the industrial revolution was acquired by the museum in 1887. It belongs here in this museum which is a secular cathedral of power and industrialisation.

Also going under the wrecking ball is the Powerhouse Museum’s distinctive brand. The museum management has now admitted it will be finished and consigned to the dustbin.[8] PHM is already shrinking on the façade of its own building, replaced by the unpronounceable and fractured MAAS. Brand designers are shaking their heads as the museum writes off 30 years of investment in brand identity, marketing, tourism promotion and community awareness, including the PHM’s international brand and reputation built through acclaimed exhibitions. [9]

But wait there’s more…. along with the demolition of the museum will go 120 years of education, innovation and community connections to Ultimo. Also damaged is the confidence of the museum’s network of supporters, donors and benefactors. We know some benefactors have already changed their wills. No one asked us about the museum’s demolition. And this goes to the larger question of who owns the museum. Mike Baird thinks the museum is his caravan that can be towed to a site of greater political advantage. He is wrong. All museums grow out of a sense of place and connection to their community, neighbourhood and context. They are rooted in place, and over time their stories are intertwined. They cannot be transplanted, any more than the 150 year old Anzac figs at Randwick can be transplanted.[10] Would the British Government move the V&A from Cromwell Rd, sell the site to developers and rip up its brand? No they’re building new V&A campuses in Scotland and the London Olympics site.[11] Was Tate Britain forced to leave its constrained Millbank site in order to open Tate Modern? No.

Only in Sydney is a museum with a 120 year history in this neighbourhood seen as an opportunity for a secret real estate deal. The Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo is an integral part of the history of Ultimo, Darling Harbour, and Sydney. It exhibits – in the building, as a museum and in its collections – the interwoven history of power generation, transport, urbanisation, design and the growth of Sydney as a modern city. The Powerhouse and the Tram Depot are some of the last great standing relics of Darling Harbour’s industrial history. The storylines from this site extend across time and across Sydney and NSW. They still have meaning and resonance for Sydney today, as it builds a new tram network, and as Ultimo changes shape as an education, design and innovation hub.

This government’s museum demolition plans betray the foundation promise of a museum as a permanent institution in the service of society. A museum is an endowment, not just for this generation and the next, but in perpetuity. We the people make that endowment through our taxes and generosity as donors to the collection and the foundation. The Powerhouse Museum’s collections are held in trust for the people of NSW. They are not the assets and political pawns of government. Museums are built on foundations of public trust and that is what is betrayed by the Baird Government’s reckless museum demolition plan.

So I have three questions for you here today, standing up for the enduring values of the Powerhouse Museum, as OUR museum, not the government’s political plaything.

Who owns the museum? We do
Where does the Powerhouse belong? In Ultimo
Is the Powerhouse moving? No


[1] For more on the proposal for a new museum at Parramatta see Kylie Winkworth, Five Museum ideas for Parramatta https://powerhousemuseumalliance.com/museum-opportunities/five-museum-ideas-for-parramatta/ and Six Questions for the Premier on Transparency and Planning for the Development of a new Museum in Parramatta https://powerhousemuseumalliance.com/six-questions-for-the-premier-on-the-sale-of-the-powerhouse-museum-site/
[2] Kylie Winkworth, ‘Museum Policy a Fossil that Ignores Rural Interest, SMH, 18 May 1990. Nothing has changed for museum funding and cultural equity in NSW since I wrote this.
[3] See for example the Daily Telegraph’s attack on the 178 cultural and business leaders who signed the open letter to keep the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo and build a new museum in Parramatta, derided as eastern suburbs and inner city elites.
[4] In the years 2007-10 cultural spending in NSW decreased by 23%. In 2009-10 NSW had a lower than average spend per capita on culture than all jurisdictions except Victoria; $104 per person, when the national average was $135. Recreation and Arts Baseline Report, prepared by Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) for Infrastructure NSW, 2012, p.57. The report notes that NSW has not made comparable investments to other states in new or expanded cultural infrastructure over the last decade, p.3.
[5] Between 2002-2010, western Sydney attracted $55m in cultural infrastructure funding. There have been no major cultural infrastructure grants to western Sydney since the O’Farrell/ Baird Government was elected in 2011. http://www.arts.nsw.gov.au/index.php/arts-in-nsw/arts-in-western-sydney-2/ Funding for regional cultural infrastructure is at token levels. The Arts NSW 2016 regional cultural infrastructure grant round allocated just $385,000 for all of regional NSW, which is around 30% of the population of NSW. The biggest grant was just $60,000. http://www.arts.nsw.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/30216_NSW-Government-builds-up-regional-art.pdf Regional communities such as Albury, Dubbo and Orange are building new cultural facilities with no capital contribution from the NSW government.
[6] In a Fairfax FOI application for papers relating to the relocation of the Powerhouse Museum, 27 key studies and reports about the museum’s move were withheld as cabinet in confidence, including the vision for the new museum in Parramatta.
[7] The FOI papers reveal the new museum will be smaller than the PHM. The government argues the new museum in Parramatta will have 40% more objects on display than the Ultimo museum. (They might be mainly small objects, not the large transport and power collections than need space to be appreciated.) https://www.nsw.gov.au/media-releases-premier/new-home-chosen-powerhouse-museum
MAAS records that the PHM had 8,000 objects on display in 2015. If this is increased by 40% this will be 11,200 objects on display in the new museum at Parramatta. There are 500,000 objects in the MAAS collections so the new Parramatta museum will still only display 2.24% of the collection, leaving more than 97% of the collection in storage.
[8] https://maas.museum/about/maas-parramatta/faqs/
[9] Despite the previous director’s inexplicable rebranding project to replace the PHM identity with MAAS, the museum is still widely known internationally as the Powerhouse Museum. http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/1419022/video-isabella-blow-a-fashionable-life-at-sydneys-powerhouse
[10] Museums are rarely moved. And when they are it is for well understood reasons, based on careful study and consultation. These reasons may include moving to a more central location. For more on moving museums see Jennifer Sanders, Moving Museums and Galleries a Brief Survey https://powerhousemuseumalliance.com/what-the-experts-say/moving-museums/
11] See V&A Museum of Design Dundee http://www.vandadundee.org/ and plans for the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park   http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/v/v-and-a-at-e20-a-new-cultural-and-education-quarter-for-the-queen-elizabeth-olympic-park/i