The government’s plans to develop a new museum in Parramatta are warmly supported. But the location, form, facilities and content of the new museum must be based on deep consultation with communities in Parramatta and western Sydney. And it should not be predicated on the closure and sale of the Powerhouse Museum at Ultimo. The secrecy and lack of consultation around the new museum is unprecedented and breaks all norms of sound museum planning.
1. Why hasn’t the government had an open dialogue with communities in Parramatta and western Sydney about what kind of museum they want, and what museum model will best meet their needs, audience interests and cultural aspirations? It is highly unusual to build a new museum on any scale, let alone one likely to cost more than $500m, without beginning the museum planning with detailed and transparent community consultations. Sound arguments have been made for other museum models and options for Parramatta, including an extension of the Art Gallery of NSW, a hybrid museum and gallery, a museum of creativity, or a museum of NSW and migration history, among many ideas. But the government seems determined not to let the communities of Parramatta and western Sydney have a genuine say in what kind of museum they will get.
2. What is the vision for the new museum in Parramatta? And why have more than 27 papers on the development of the new museum been withheld as cabinet in confidence papers? This is unheard of in museum planning practice in liberal democracies. Even the vision document for the new museum has been withheld as cabinet in confidence.
3. Why haven’t museum and heritage groups in Parramatta been consulted on the vision and content of the new Parramatta museum? Parramatta is not an empty museum and cultural landscape, waiting to be filled by the former Powerhouse museum. Parramatta already has a number of museums and significant heritage attractions which should be recognised as future partners and stakeholders. And Parramatta also has a vibrant contemporary arts and multi cultural community. All these groups should be contributing to the museum planning and have the opportunity to exhibit in the new museum.
4. In choosing to recycle the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta, will the government leave Parramatta as the only city in western Sydney without a gallery and exhibition space for the art and artists of western Sydney? Much has been made of Parramatta as Sydney’s second CBD needing a statement museum as an expression of their prestige and status. But this will evidently not include an art gallery. Recently the three major contemporary art organisations in Sydney city – the Art Gallery of NSW, the MCA and Carriageworks, launched a new art biennial The National. A Western Sydney partner was notably absent in this alliance. For all the money the government will put into moving the Powerhouse to Parramatta, it seems the artists of Parramatta will still not have an art museum to show their work. And it is not clear how artists and curators in Western Sydney will benefit from the museum relocation in terms of jobs and opportunities.
5. Why haven’t the papers around the critical site selection of the new museum site been released? It is remarkable that the government has not had an open and transparent evaluation of potential museum sites in Western Sydney, given the huge investment and risk issues. The site the government has inexplicably chosen for the new museum has numerous and very serious deficiencies: it is flood prone, it is small and constrained and will mean a smaller museum than the Ultimo PHM, all forms of transport access are poor except for the ferry from the city, Parramatta Council is divided on the museum being located on its site, and the museum may not own or control the site or adjacent uses, with troubling ramifications for its future sustainability.
6. How will the relocated Powerhouse Museum relate to the history and contemporary cultures of Parramatta and western Sydney when MAAS has deleted history and migration heritage from the collecting and research interests of the museum? The museum is relocating to the foundation site of European settlement, a city with the oldest buildings and cultural landscapes, and an extensive archaeology of first settlement and convict history. It also has a continuous Aboriginal history with family descendants linked to and predating early European settlement. But MAAS has declared it has no interest in collecting or exhibiting NSW history. Contemporary Parramatta is one of the most culturally diverse areas in Sydney with nearly 50% of its population born overseas and more than half speaking a language other than English at home. Unfortunately MAAS recently closed the acclaimed Migration Heritage Centre and no longer collects or researches the migration heritage of NSW. With the closure of the MHC the museum lost its expertise in creating collaborative projects and community partnerships. How will the relocated museum in Parramatta be a success in its new community without an interest in NSW history and migration heritage?
Kylie Winkworth, May 2016