The big lie about the Powerhouse: Debbie Rudder

Unfortunately, Arts Minister Don Harwin has been convinced that the Powerhouse Museum is no longer ‘fit for purpose’ as a modern exhibition venue. This untruth now haunts the museum’s Trustees, who have back-flipped recently, stating that they are keen to maintain a presence at Ultimo.

Let’s look at the facts, and ask the question: is it likely that a venue as suitable as the Powerhouse could be created from scratch?

A great deal of taxpayers’ money, and creative endeavour, was spent in the 1980s to convert Sydney’s first public power station into an ‘iconic world-class museum’, which is the Minister’s mantra for the institution he imagines will sit on the cramped, flood-prone site selected at Parramatta. More capital works funding has been poured into the Ultimo site since the 1980s, some for essential works such as earthquake-proofing, and much for reconfiguring and kitting out the spaces within.

The Ultimo site has several large spaces fit for displaying the museum’s own big objects and grand stories, and for bringing major overseas exhibitions to NSW audiences. It also has a range of spaces suitable for smaller exhibitions and events, plus two theatres endowed with large screens and the latest audio-visual equipment.

The Powerhouse also contains a re-created Art Deco cinema and a laboratory that hold smaller audiences for films, talks and demonstrations. And the large dedicated education areas are equipped with computers, electronic kits, interactive whiteboards, break-out rooms, and huge interactive screens where visitors can explore imaginary environments.

Since 1988, the museum has kept up with trends in display techniques and interactivity. Staff have created and digitised immense amounts of collection information, including images, and made it accessible online, including to visitors via free WiFi. They have created or commissioned: videos and slide shows that complement displayed objects; simple mechanical interactives that explain concepts; special plinths and showcases to show objects to best effect; an immersive sound-and-light show that dominated the Transport gallery for some time; QR codes that made extra content available in the Love Lace exhibition; screens to allow direct access to digitised images and stories in other exhibitions; 3D virtual reality experiences; a multi-player iPad game in Ecologic; and many engaging, educational role-playing interactives.

So what are the ‘wonderful things’ possible at Parramatta that the Minister told the Enquiry can’t be done at Ultimo? And why trash taxpayers’ huge investment in the Powerhouse? The population of Sydney, and of NSW, has grown by a third since 1988, and it is still growing fast. Why not retain the Powerhouse in its amazing heritage building, whose grand spaces would be impossible to replicate, and build a new museum or gallery at Parramatta?

Even if the total cost of the move were less than the $1.5 billion estimated by Dr Lindsay Sharp, an estimate than Mr Harwin repudiates but refuses to discuss, just moving objects out of Ultimo will be very expensive. That’s before any piers are sunk into the mud to support a building at Parramatta, before it is built and fitted out, and before any objects are installed or any screens go live.

At the eighth session of the Upper House Enquiry into Museums and Galleries, the Minister gave a surprising response to a warning in a recent Deloitte report. The consultants advised that there is a risk a new museum at Parramatta would not be an ‘iconic world-class’ institution. Don Harwin dismissed this warning as just words from a Deloitte ‘template’. This response was insulting to the consultants and disturbing to those of us footing the bills. The bottom line is that we could well pay a huge amount of money for the government’s museum adventure, with no guarantee that the Parramatta venue would match the Powerhouse, let alone surpass it.

Perhaps the business case will clarify these issues, but will it compare the costs and benefits of the move with alternative options that include retaining the Powerhouse? And will we ever be allowed to know?

Debbie Rudder
Former science and technology curator