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

21 November 2018

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

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 mission from a museum of applied arts and sciences, interpreting its heritage collection developed over 140 years, to a ‘future focussed contemporary science, technology and innovation museum’.[i] It is not just the PHM’s Ultimo site that will be demolished with ‘move’, but its historic purpose as Australia’s only museum of applied arts and sciences.

This paper draws together figures from the government’s business case papers and commissioned reports, and highlights the planned downsizing of the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta.

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

The business case papers reveal that the combined floor area of PHM at Ultimo is 42,594sqm.[ii] In the cabinet approved option 3 design for the New Museum Western Sydney, the total floor space is just 21,200sqm, of which only 11,500sqm is exhibition space.[iii] The 21,200sqm includes back of house functions but not plant.

The summary paper produced by Infrastructure NSW 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 not supported by the business case papers and the spatial allocations in the option 3 design approved by cabinet, see table below.[iv]

The government’s own business case papers reveal that the total size of the NMWS is at best half the size of the PHM. The Parramatta museum will not be in any form like-for- like to the spaces and facilities the museum already owns and occupies at Ultimo.

The Powerhouse Museum has around 20,000sqm of exhibition space, as described in its own listing on the Collections Australia Network website.[v] This entry dates to before the redevelopment of the Wran building as a 1,800sqm temporary exhibition space, the largest of museum or gallery temporary exhibition space in Sydney.[vi] 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 shell is around 50% cheaper than a fully designed object based exhibition, see below.  Most of the Powerhouse has, or had, 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’s Wran building with its 1,800 sqm of touring/ temporary exhibition space. Again the government has misrepresented the facts in its April 2018 media release and summary paper claiming that it is building the largest museum in NSW. It will only be the largest museum in NSW once the Powerhouse is closed and demolished.

No object-based museum has more than half its exhibition spaces allocated to temporary and touring exhibitions. It is simply too expensive in costs and staff time. 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, public program and media staff to engage students and visitors and promote the changing displays. Alternatively, the museum management will abandon all pretence of properly curated and designed exhibitions.

Moreover, the business case is based on there being no increase to staff numbers or recurrent funding.[vii] 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 this eventuates, with no increase to staffing numbers or its recurrent budget. MAAS annual reports reveal that the museum has run deficits of $10m and $15m for the last two years. The museum is already broke. Short of including a massive car park in the NMWS, with income to go to the museum, it is hard to see how the operations of the NMWS will be financially sustainable.

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.[viii] This was likely one of the strategies used to lift the Benefit Cost Ratio from the original negative 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. This is smaller than the storage and collection management space in the Harwood building on the PHM site. Even if the government’s claims that it will add 5,000sqm of additional space to Castle Hill are delivered, this will still mean that the total size of the NMWS plus Castle Hill is only 26,200sqm, some 16,394sqm smaller than the Powerhouse Museum, and drastically less functional.

Furthermore, the business case papers reveal that an additional 2,376sqm of storage space will be required to house the large objects that will not be shown in the Parramatta museum.[ix]  The space requirements and costs for rehousing the PHM’s large and Very Large Objects (VLOs), on either a permanent or temporary basis, have not been costed in the NMWS project budget.[x] Presumably this was also designed to help cut costs and lift the BCR above 1.0. The cost of constructing or hiring temporary storage for large objects is not in the NMWS business case papers. MAAS is now in the process of cost shifting its storage obligations onto volunteer managed museums, asking around to find museums to house some of the large objects. Most of these large objects 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.

The NMWS was planned in secret on the assumption that the real project parameters and business case would never be made public. Thanks to the Legislative Council which forced the release of the business case papers, we know 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. 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, compromises and risk of separating these functions has never been assessed or costed. Nor have the benefits and savings in maintaining these co-located facilities been measured.

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.[xi] Currently objects are moved seamlessly on the PHM’s Ultimo site at little risk and no cost, facilitating research, access and exhibition changeovers. Under the government’s plan, every object movement will mean packing, trucking, a 25 minute journey, unloading, unpacking and conservation checks. Downgrading the museum’s collection facilities entails a shocking increase in risks, time and costs in perpetuity. And all of this cost to taxpayers and collection risk is just to clear the PHM’s Ultimo site for a property development opportunity. With substantially larger temporary galleries and only 500sqm of storage at Parramatta, the current 53,000 object movements at the PHM will be at least doubled.

The government and Infrastructure NSW have misled the public with the claim the NMWS will be bigger than the Powerhouse, and that the museum will be completely relocated.[xii] This is nonsense. The NMWS is half the size of the PHM. The collection is being broken up. The destination of the PHM’s priceless large engineering and transport objects is unknown and not costed. They will never be displayed together again.

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 at Parramatta plus Castle Hill was smaller than the PHM. Even so Professor Barney Glover, president of the MAAS Trust, asserted at the recent hearing of the Inquiry into Museums and Galleries that the NMWS will be bigger than the PHM.[xiii] It is a great concern that the MAAS Trust appears to be going along with the government’s museum demolition plans, handing over the museum’s property and assets that they hold in trust, surrendering project planning control, and accepting a scheme for downsizing the Powerhouse into facilities that are grossly inferior to what the museum owns at Ultimo. It is hard to think of a more serious breach of the public interest and inter-generational responsibilities inherent in trusteeship.

While the winning competition design for the new Parramatta museum may result in a building of with slightly different specifications and exhibition galleries to option 3, the budget and site constraints suggest the required ‘iconic’ building is unlikely to deliver anything approaching the size, scale and grandeur of the Powerhouse Museum.  The Powerhouse is being downsized, and stripped of its assets which are owned and endowed by the people of NSW.  There is no precedent anywhere in the world for what the government is doing to a great public museum.

[i] Johnstaff, Integration Brief, The MAAS Project, version 5, 8 January 2018. For this and other business case documents cited here see

[ii] Steensen Varming, The Ultimo Presence Project 4 Site Infrastructure assessment 2; attachment F; 8 August 2017

[iii] See Final Business case (Supplement) The New Museum in Western Sydney, Johnstaff, version 6.0, 24 April 2018, option 3, p. 4

[iv] See also Attachment I, Project Concept Options, The New Museum in Western Sydney, Fender Katsalidis Mirams Architects for Johnstaff, 20 September 2017, option 3.

[v] “The Powerhouse Museum, Australia’s largest and most popular museum, is located in Darling Harbour, Sydney. Its unique and diverse collection of 385,000 objects spans history, science, technology, design, industry, decorative arts, music, transport and space exploration. The Museum has an ever-changing program of exhibitions covering approximately 20,000 square metres (equivalent to three international competition soccer fields). It presents 22 permanent exhibitions and several temporary exhibitions, complemented by more than 250 interactives.”

[vi] At least it was the largest temporary exhibition space until the museum, strapped for cash and ideas in 2018, partitioned and leased some the space to UTS for use as a teaching space.

[vii] “The Extended Final Business case does not seek any addition recurrent funding following commencement of operations at the New Museum in Western Sydney”, Executive Summary, Final Business Case Supplement, Johnstaff, version 6.0, 24 April 2018, p.1. MASS has run deficits of $10m and $15m in the past two years.

[viii] Exhibition infrastructure costs have been redacted in the Final Business case Supplement, The New Museum in Western Sydney, 24 April 2018, p.5

[ix] Collections and Logistics Plan, Root Projects, 28 Nov 2016, attachment X to the Final Business Case 14 February 2017, p.12

[x] Collections Relocations and Logistics Hirst Projects, attachment U, 8 January 2018, version 4.0

[xi] Jennifer Sanders, Response to the Business case, submission 142g, 8 August 2018


[xiii] Portfolio Committee No 4 Inquiry into Museums and Galleries, transcript 16 November 2018 p.14.


Option 3:  Exhibition Galleries NMWS
Level Temp/ Touring sqm Long Term Other Sub total
Ground 1,500 sqm touring DH* 1,000sqm DH 2,500
Level 2 800 1,000 children 1,800
Level 3 500 temporary 1,000 DH
800 temp 800 DH
800 temp
500 temp 4,400
Level 4 600 temp 800
600 800 2,800
Sub totals 5,300 sqm 5,200 sqm 1,000 sqm 11,500sqm

* DH = double height space

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.