The MAAS Collection, scope, scale and endless delight: Christina Sumner OAM

The remarkable diversity and cultural significance of the collection of Sydney’s Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences is easy to underestimate, simply because of its immeasurable breadth. The attached summary  MAAS collection 28Feb12 ,  incomplete though it surely is, was constructed by me in early 2012, in collaboration with my curatorial colleagues at that time, in an attempt to bring the collection’s outstanding scope, rarity and significance more readily within our grasp. Most of the objects and the collections listed can be further explored in the Museum’s online public access catalogue at:

Ranging from the physical and biological sciences to decorative arts, crafts and contemporary design, from communications and transport to social history, engineering,  archaeology and  architecture, this unique and wonderful collection has been thoughtfully and lovingly built and strengthened over the Museum’s 130+ years in its two Ultimo homes, through the passion, knowledge and ingenuity of its curators and the generosity of donors and patrons. In other words, like most museum collections, it’s been a joint commitment by the Museum community as a whole to create a seriously valuable resource for our enquiry, enjoyment and edification today and into the future.

True to its 1880 origins as Sydney’s Technological Museum, the linking thread that connects these apparently disparate objects is technology; it’s a collection that, loosely put, represents and explores the ingenuity of the made rather than the naturally occurring world, in Australia, the Asia-Pacific region and the surrounding global context. Since for each made object there is a maker, the importance of collecting the stories of those people – the dreamers, designers and makers from kitchen to studio, workshop, factory and heavy industry – has been mandatory, in particular since the rigorous re-visioning and re-structuring of MAAS in the early 1980s and its housing in 1988 in the purpose-designed and award-winning renovation of Sydney’s old powerhouse building.

In any museum collection there are some standouts, unique objects that reflect inspirational ideas, great beauty, world-stopping events and revolutionary innovations. In the MAAS collection, objects such as the Boulton & Watt steam engine, Catalina flying boat and Number 1 Loco are of such abiding significance that they were ‘built into’ the Powerhouse in the 1980s. To move these objects, as would be necessitated by the ill-considered and ultimately destructive proposal to move the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta, would not only be prohibitively costly but would also seriously endanger them.

As these and other objects are integral to the history, development and unique culture of the Powerhouse Museum, so is the physical Museum inseparable from its place in metropolitan Sydney, and specifically in the innovation precinct of Ultimo. It takes time to build a museum and to formulate its particular character and personality, to encourage visitation and generate community support. The Powerhouse Museum has evolved into the well-established and much-loved cultural institution it is thanks to both the skill and creativity of its staff and the millions of tax-payers dollars invested in it.

The proposal to dismantle this institution, so strongly linked to place, would be wasteful in the extreme of human achievement, financial investment, and community opinion and contributions over time. To build a new museum for the people of Western Sydney, considered and designed specifically for them, would conversely be money wisely spent.

Christina Sumner OAM, was a curator decorative arts, then principal curator design and society, at MAAS from 1985 to 2013.