Shrinking the Powerhouse to Parramatta: Lies, Spin and Delusions – Kylie Winkworth

Comparative museum sizes: Powerhouse Museum (PHM) vs. New Museum of Western Sydney (NMWS) at Parramatta Riverbank

21 November 2018

The New Museum Western Sydney (NMWS) to be built from the demolished Powerhouse Museum (PHM) is the ONLY museum development project anywhere in the world where the new museum and its facilities will be smaller and inferior to what the Powerhouse already has at Ultimo. The PHM has world’s best practice exhibition and collection facilities, workshops, conservation labs and research library all on the one accessible site. By the time the Berejiklian government has done its museum demolition job on the PHM, these state of the art facilities will be spread between Parramatta, Castle Hill and maybe Ultimo.

This is only museum development project anywhere in the world that does NOT improve and enlarge the museum’s facilities, expand the museum’s exhibitions and audiences, or improve collection access and storage. Nor does the NMWS enlarge or extend the PHM’s mission or capacity to share its collection. Indeed the business case papers are frank about changing the museum’s historic mission.

This paper draws together figures from the government’s own reports and highlights the irrefutable downsizing of the Powerhouse Museum.

The combined floor area of PHM at Ultimo is 42,594sqm, as detailed in Steensen Varming for Johnstaff, attachment F, The Ultimo Presence Project, 8 August 2017, p.13, prepared for the Extended Final Business Case

In the cabinet approved option 3 design for the New Museum Western Sydney the total floor space is 21,200sqm, of which only 11,500sqm is exhibition space, see Final Business case (Supplement) The New Museum in Western Sydney, Johnstaff, version 6.0, 24 April 2018, option 3, p. 4.

The 21,200sqm includes back of house functions but not plant. The summary paper produced by INSW and released with the April 2018 announcement of The New Powerhouse in Parramatta, claims the NMWS will have 18,000sqm of exhibition and public space. This is contradicted by the business case papers and the details of the cabinet approved option 3. The government and INSW have misled the public, and it would seem the MAAS Trust. There is no way the Parramatta museum will be in any form like-for- like to the spaces and facilities the museum already owns and occupies at Ultimo.  See also Attachment I, Project Concept Options, The New Museum in Western Sydney, Fender Katsalidis Mirams Architects for Johnstaff, 20 September 2017, option 3 and final page for spaces and sizes.

Therefore the total size of the NMWS is at best half the size of the PHM.

The Powerhouse Museum has around 20,000sqm of exhibition space, as described in its own listing on the Collections Australia Network website. This entry is before the redevelopment of the Wran building as an 1,800sqm temporary exhibition space, the largest of temporary exhibition space in Sydney. That brings the PHM’s total exhibition space to 21,800sqm.

From calculations of the gallery spaces in option 3 for the NMWS, approved by cabinet in April 2018, the NMWS will have just 11,500sqm of exhibition space, temporary, touring and long term.

Of that, only 5,200sqm is dedicated to long term galleries. This was likely a money saving decision since building an empty gallery is 50% cheaper than a fully designed object based exhibition, see below.  Most of the PHM has long term or ‘permanent’ exhibitions drawn from the museum’s collection. Under these plans the NMWS will have just 25% of the space that the PHM has for long term exhibitions.

Option 3 shows the NMWS will have 5,300sqm of temporary and touring space. This includes a primary touring hall of 1,500sqm. This is smaller than the PHM Wran building’s temporary exhibition space of 1,800sqm. Again the government has lied in its April 2018 media release and summary paper that is building the largest museum in NSW. (Short of cash MAAS subdivided this space in 2018 and hired it to UTS for use as classrooms.)

There is no known object based museum that has more than half its exhibition spaces allocated to temporary and touring exhibitions. People working on the NMWS must have little idea of the time and costs involved in the planning, research, design and construction of museum exhibitions. The staff time and exhibition development costs to service a museum like this will be considerable, and will require more curators, designers, conservators, registrars and fabricators, not to mention education and public program staff to engage students and visitors.

Just as concerning, the business case is based on there being no increase to staff numbers or recurrent funding. It is a fantasy to think that MAAS can possibly support and sustain this level of changing exhibitions plus another mooted 4,000sqm in the ‘Ultimo Presence’, (if in fact this eventuates), all with no increase to their staffing numbers or recurrent budget.

It is probable that this remarkably high proportion of temporary and touring exhibition spaces in the NMWS was determined as a cost saving measure, since the design and construction of object-based long term or permanent exhibitions is about 50% more expensive than building empty galleries. This was one of the strategies used to lift the Benefit Cost Ratio from the original 0.43 up to 1.02. Given the BCR of the NMWS is a tiny 1.02, adding the cost of another 4,000sm of completed exhibitions to the budget would have lowered the BCR of the new museum to below 1.0.

The government claims it will add 5,000sqm of additional storage and workshop space at Castle Hill. It is not clear if this much additional space can be accommodated on the current site. Even if the government’s claims that it will add 5,000sqm of additional space to Castle Hill are correct, this will still mean that the total size of the NMWS plus Castle Hill is only 26,200sqm.

The space requirements and costs for rehousing the museum’s Very Large Objects (VLOs) have not been counted in the NMWS project budget. Presumably this was also a way to lift the BCR above 1.0. MAAS is now in the process of asking volunteer managed museum if they would like to take them. It is likely that most of these will not be displayed in the NMWS with its ‘contemporary’ science displays. It is not known if the MAAS board has discussed the effective break-up of the collection and the distribution of VLOs to small museums, which may not have the facilities, environmental controls, security, management systems and expertise to manage these items.

It is incontrovertible that under the government’s plans the PHM is being downsized into facilities that are little more than half the size of the current museum; not to mention that the NMWS will be overshadowed by a 70 storey super tower, and will lack the open space that visitors enjoy at the PHM, and lack the other attractions in the Ultimo precinct like Darling Harbour and the National Maritime Museum.

Of great concern is that the NMWS will not have the PHM’s best practice collection facilities where the public and exhibition spaces are co-located with the collection storage, conservation labs, workshops and research library. The time, cost and risk of separating these functions has never been assessed or costed. Nor have the benefits of maintaining these co-located facilities been measured. This includes enhanced research and collection access, conservation, lower collection risks, increased costs and staff time tied up in packing, transport, unpacking and checking condition.

Jennifer Sanders, in her submission to the Legislative Council museum inquiry, notes there were around 53,000 object movements per annum between the PHM’s exhibition spaces and the Harwood collection building next door; submission 142g. Objects are moved on the PHM’s Ultimo site efficiently, quickly, at little risk and low cost. Under the government’s plan every object movement will mean packing, trucking, a 25 minute journey, unloading, unpacking and conservation checks. This is an alarming increase in time, costs and collection risks in perpetuity. And all of this is unnecessary. With substantially larger temporary galleries and only 500sqm of storage at Parramatta, the current 53,000 object movements at the PHM will be multiplied per annum by at least a factor of five.

The MAAS board must be aware that the NMWS will be smaller than the PHM. The Trust minutes of 9 December 2015 noted the combined square metre envelope of the NMWS Parramatta plus Castle Hill was smaller than the PHM. But Professor Barney Glover, president of the MAAS Trust, asserted at last week’s hearing of the Inquiry that the NMWS will be bigger than the PHM. His assumption may be based on the government’s April 2018 press release. However as detailed above, the government’s own documents in the Extended Final Business Case contradict these assertions. It is a concern that the President of the MAAS board either has no idea what the government is planning for the PHM and its smaller replacement, or he has not bothered to read the critical EFBC papers.
(See below)

option 3

From: Attachment I, Project Concept Options, The New Museum in Western Sydney, Fender Katsalidis Mirams Architects for Johnstaff, 20 September 2017, option 3 and final page for spaces and sizes.