Size does Matter: Shrinking the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta – Kylie Winkworth

Size does Matter: Shrinking the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta
Kylie Winkworth, 26 June 2020

The size of the Powerhouse Precinct building at Parramatta has been continually misrepresented in public statements and media releases as larger than the real Powerhouse Museum at Ultimo. It is not.  The Powerhouse Museum’s exhibition space is being downsized at Parramatta by 75%.  

Comparison of Museum Site, Building and Exhibition Spaces

Type of Space Powerhouse Museum Parramatta Facility
Total Site Area 24,378sqm[1] 19,896sqm[2]
Total Building Size 42,594sqm[3] actual 24,830sqm[4] specified
Total Museum Standard Climate Controlled Exhibition Space  

21,800[5] actual


5,200sqm[6]   specified

The spatial analysis in the EIS architectural plans shows the total Presentation Space is just 12,644sqm, see below.[7] There will be just 5,094sqm of ‘presentation space’ that meets international museum standard environmental conditions.

Location & Level Space Size sqm Function Climate control
Ground Floor East P 1 2,759 Multi-purpose, for concerts, major events and installations, also designated for large objects but at high risk of flooding. Operable wall to open to the river. No access to loading dock! A
Level 1 West P 3 1,486 Talks and performance, events, exhibitions, flexible seating bank for 800 AA
Level 2 East P 2 2,122 Large objects, exhibitions, performance, events, adjacent terrace open to the river. Only a hoist for large objects. A
Level 2 West P 5 1,486 Exhibitions, performance, events AA
Level 3 East P 4 2,122 Exhibitions, performance, events AA
Level 3 West P 6 1,486 Immersive screen program, performance, events, flexible seating bank for 800 A
Level 4 West P 7 1,182 Commercial hire, events, conferences, functions, adjacent to a commercial kitchen, a transparent box open to a terrace overlooking the river A
Total AA climate controlled space 5,094
Total Presentation space A + AA 12,643

The Powerhouse Precinct building at Parramatta will have just 25% of the PHM’s international museum standard climate controlled exhibition space. At best.

There are no dedicated museum-specific exhibition spaces in the development. Every ‘presentation space’ is available for commercial hire and is required to do double duty for performances, events, functions, and corporate hire.[8] The only curating in the building will be food programs.[9]

The Powerhouse Precinct in Parramatta is not the science museum concept endorsed by cabinet in April 2018. It is not a museum. It is not about science. It is not for families.[10] It is designed to support the night time economy of Parramatta, a 24 x 7 entertainment zone for large events. That is why it is located on a flood prone riverbank, a site that is entirely unsuitable for a museum.

The government is liquidating the assets of the Powerhouse Museum to build Carriageworks West, a multi-purpose, commercially-focussed arts and entertainment complex. The winning building design is determinedly not a museum. It is deliberately not called a museum. It is hopelessly impractical and cannot work as designed, even as an entertainment centre.

The two buildings, are expected to host 2 million visitors a year, and have multiple events for up to 10,000 people at a time, 10 cafes and bars, retail and markets, 40 apartments, a school dormitory, a cinema, a commercial kitchen and conference space, the bump-in bump-out for performances and commercial activities, museum objects on high rotation and international travelling exhibitions. All this with only one loading dock and not one single parking space. This is completely impractical and ludicrous.

Collection needs have come last in the design specifications. There is no designated space for collection management. There is no collection storage space. There is no conservation lab. In fact, not a single square metre in the building is dedicated to the PHM’s collection. They have planned the building’s theatre smoke extraction system but there is no planning for the PHM’s collections or the installation of large objects.[11]

Collection management and exhibition installation is supposed to share spaces that are also used for catering, dressing rooms, roadies and technical preparation.[12] This is untenable for any serious museum. The back of house is grossly inadequate and in the wrong spaces. Corridors and lift vestibules are counted as back of house and staff offices.

The building cannot accommodate the PHM’s large objects. It is not clear how large objects can be moved into the building. The ground floor P1 space in the eastern building is exposed to a 1:100 year flood – a high probability – it is open to the River and is not climate controlled to museum standards. It is designed for large events and concerts not museum exhibitions. The P2 space above, also designated for large objects, will not have international museum standard climate controls. It is also designed for large events and performances and has an adjoining terrace. It is not known how a locomotive might be hoisted into this space. They are still working on this.

Neither the P1 or P2 spaces for large objects will have international museum standard climate controlled environments. They will only have A rated environmental controls.[13] The Stage 2 Design brief notes that the environment in these spaces is only conditioned at comfort levels up to 4m. It is accepted that temperature and humidity above this point can be uncontrolled. [14] This means that any suspended aircraft could be subject to very high temperatures and high humidity, highly likely given the riverside location and the porous design of the building. This is grossly inferior to the display environments in the Powerhouse Museum, which is properly sealed, protected by its thermal mass, and fully climate controlled to international museum standards.

Of the AA museum standard spaces, P3 above the ground floor in the west building will mainly be used for talks and performance, not exhibitions. That leaves just P4 and P5 as potential exhibition spaces, also available for commercial hire, events and performances. Of the remaining presentation spaces, P7 is a commercial conference and function space with a kitchen on level 4, not suitable for museum exhibitions; the P6 space is for immersive digital experiences; and the ground floor space P1 is exposed to flood and open to the river. It is unsuitable for museum objects and exhibitions.

The eastern building has no escalators, only two regular lifts and stairs, contrary to the Stage 2 Design Brief requirements. This will compromise visitor movement to the upper floors and spaces P2 and P4, as well as the education facilities. It will also create evacuation risks. Of particular concern, the large P1 space for major events and concerts is not accessible from the loading dock in the western building, contrary to the Stage 2 Design Brief. [15]

There is only one loading dock to support a building holding multiple events for up to 10,000 people. This is also contrary to the Stage 2 Design Brief and accepted museum standards.[16]  One loading dock is expected to serve all the commercial, catering and function needs across two buildings, the retail hall, 10 cafes and bars, service needs for 40 apartments and a school dormitory, as well as collection objects on high rotation and international exhibitions, not to mention food waste and laundry. The loading dock in the plans on exhibition in the EIS does not separate waste storage and removal from collection deliveries and storage, as required in the Stage 2 Design Brief.[17]

Most seriously, the Parramatta site is in a high risk flood zone. The development poses grave and insoluble risks to visitor safety. It is not consistent with relevant flood policies and plans, or with Parramatta Council’s DCP and LEP. In pushing on with this development the NSW Government is deliberately putting visitors and the PHM’s collection at needless risk of injury and damage.[18]

The Powerhouse Museum is not being moved to Parramatta. Only the Powerhouse name is moving to Parramatta.

Kylie Winkworth
26 June 2020


[1] Crone Architects for Johnstaff, Ultimo Presence Project 2 Options, Sept 2017, p. 3 Ultimo Presence Project 2 Project Options
[2] Johnstaff, New Western Sydney Museum, Final Business Case, v 4, 8 January 2018, p.32. Or 19,438sqm in the  EIS, Appendix B Architectural Plans and Design Report, 1 May 2020, p.42
[3] Steensen Varming, The Ultimo Presence Project 4 Site Infrastructure assessment 2; attachment F; 8 August 2017, p.13
[4] Stage 2 Design Brief, p.126, these are gross floor areas and include the 40 apartments, school dormitory and function spaces.
[5] 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.” Later the museum converted the Wran building as a temporary exhibition space at 1,800sqm, although part of this space was subdivided a few years ago for UTS to use for lectured because the museum is broke.  This does not count other internal conversions of PHM space such as the mezzanine exhibition space at the back of the transport hall.
[6] Stage 2 Design Brief p.130, 236-239
[7] EIS, Appendix B Architectural Plans and Design Report, 1 May 2020, GFA Schedule Summary last page
[8] Stage 2 Design Brief p.132-133 and 236-237 The Powerhouse Precinct will not operate as per the existing Powerhouse Museum with fixed exhibitions and a touring gallery, with the focus on providing a series of robust functional spaces… p.236.
[9] There are just five references to the term ‘curated’ in the Stage 2 Design Brief, all referring to food programs and public art. The Powerhouse will actively generate income through establishing an integrated commercial program that includes multiple food and beverage retail offerings, a curated annual food events program, major events program, product development and commercial programs that are delivered across the Precinct.p.28
[10] The Stage 2 Design Brief has just two references to families, and one reference to children. There are 155 references to events and performances, only 40 mentions of exhibitions.
[11] Stage 2 Design Brief, p.237
[12] Provide a flexible space adjacent to each Presentation Space that could be used for catering, dressing room, technical preparation space or Collection management space. Stage 2 Design Brief p.135. In the EIS architectural plans this appears to be the landing space outside the goods lift.
[13] Stage 2 Design Brief, p.130-131, 236-239
[14] Stage 2 Design Brief, p. 238
[15] The Stage 2 Design Brief required ‘direct accessibility to Presentation Spaces on the ground plane on the Museum’. p.259
[16] Stage 2 Design Brief, Separate loading docks for collections/exhibits and general shipments are required to maintain Collection security, legislative compliance and the integrity of integrated pest management. In particular, food stuff and waste disposal should be handled via a separate loading doc; p.268. Not delivered in the EIS plans.
[17] Stage 2 Design Brief; p.259 and 269, see also note 16 above.
[18] See Winkworth submission 137a; and Dr John Macintosh, submission 95 Also