The Powerhouse and Notre Dame: a tale of destructions – Jennifer Sanders

A tale of destructions:
Notre Dame – Sydney International Exhibition Building – The Powerhouse Museum

17 May, 2019

The conflagration in April 2019 which consumed Notre Dame, the spiritual and emotional heart of Paris, is undoubtedly a cultural heritage disaster of epic proportions given the cathedral’s great age, beauty and its place in world history.

Closer to home, in Sydney, on the morning of 22 September 1882, a conflagration on a similar scale destroyed the magnificent Garden Palace built to house the 1879 Sydney International Exhibition – the first international exhibition to be held in Australia. The imposing brick and wooden structure, crowned by the largest dome in Australia, was designed by Colonial Architect James Barnet, and constructed in just 8 months, aided by the first practical use of electric light in Australia.

The Exhibition was inspired by the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations which opened in London’s Crystal Palace in May 1851. At the opening, a message was sent by electric telegraph to Queen Victoria informing her of the Exhibition’s successful inauguration.

The Garden Palace, flags and pennants flying from its dome and towers, dominated the Royal Botanical Gardens and was a huge attraction over the seven months of the Exhibition. Open from 9am to 7pm, Monday to Saturday, 1,117,563 people visited in 185 days – a remarkable number given NSW’s population was only 709,453. It was truly the people’s palace.

When the Exhibition closed, Sir Henry Parkes, Colonial Secretary, proposed that the Garden Palace be dedicated to public use. In 1880, the Trustees of The Australian Museum, recommended the establishment of the Technological, Industrial and Sanitary Museum, forerunner of the Powerhouse Museum, to be housed in the Garden Palace. By 1882, the first Curator, JH Maiden had assembled a collection of some 10,000 objects, many from the Sydney International Exhibition and, was setting up the Museum in preparation for the public opening.

The fiery destruction of the Garden Palace in 1882 was a catastrophe that deeply shocked the people of Sydney. Reporting on the fire the next day, 23rd September, the Sydney Morning Herald said ‘An immense flame leapt into the sky, volumes of black smoke rolled up , and with a crash like a peal of thunder the mighty dome fell in.’

Men, women and children lined the streets, balconies and the rooftops, shocked into silence by the ferocity of the blaze. Firemen could only watch and try to save nearby buildings. ‘Walls were falling, towers toppling over and tumbling huge masses of ruin into the great lustrous sea of red hot metal and burning woodwork beneath.’

Lost in the fire were irreplaceable treasures including the paintings collection of The Art Society of NSW, forerunner of the Art Gallery of NSW; the Colonial collection of statuary; the unanalysed records of the 1881 census; colonial archives and the Linnean Society Museum.

Heartbreakingly, this fire also destroyed the embryonic Powerhouse Museum for practically all its collection and records were gone, including the ethnological collection of rare specimens of Aboriginal objects. The Museum had suffered its First Destruction.

Garden Palace Fire 1882, lithograph from Illustrated Sydney News Supplement, Powerhouse Museum Collection, P2239

Undaunted, Maiden began re-collecting objects for the Museum which was temporarily relocated to the Exhibition’s former Agricultural Hall where it opened twelve months later, attracting over 100,000 visitors a year for the next decade.

In 1893, the renamed Technological Museum, rose like a phoenix from the ashes of the Garden Palace and opened to great fanfare in a new building in Ultimo where it became the leading institution in this new science, education and cultural precinct.

In 1988, having outgrown its 1893 home, the Museum was completely transformed through the visionary project to repurpose and develop the former Ultimo Power House and Tram Depot into the Powerhouse Museum. The 1988 Museum, with its new Wran Building inspired by the Garden Palace won numerous architectural and museum awards and set the highest standards for museum presentation and experiences.

Unbelievably, just 30 years later, the 139 year old Museum is to be destroyed for the second time in its long and distinguished lifetime. Only this time there will be no rising from the ashes to greater museological heights.

Instead, the plan to move the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta will result in a museum half the size with nothing to match the magnificent display volumes of the Powerhouse Museum. There will be less collection on display – far fewer planes, trains, stationary steam engines, less of the outstanding decorative arts and design objects, only a nod to the social history collection. A collection of unique breadth and depth reduced to a smattering to fit reduced circumstances.

This dismemberment of the Powerhouse is at a cost of at least $1.5bn for no net increase in NSW’s cultural institutions. Let alone the unconscionable risk and cost of moving 240,000 objects from purpose-built, accessible storage at Ultimo to distant, constrained storage; of extricating irreplaceable artefacts from safe and secure public display – the 1785 Boulton & Watt beam engine for one; and the grotesque folly of building a museum on a flood-prone riverbank.

This time, the irreversible damage is being done inexorably by a government which, despite sustained public and expert objections, has set in motion the needless and unjustifiable Second and Ultimate Destruction of the Powerhouse Museum.

The February 2019 Report of the Legislative Council’s Parliamentary Inquiry into Museums and Galleries is blunt in its assessment – ‘…the decision to relocate the Powerhouse Museum has been based on poor planning and advice, a flawed business case and insufficient community consultation. Nothing so far has demonstrated the necessity or purpose for relocating this world renowned cultural institution, an institution that is much loved and internationally well regarded.’

Now is the time to put aside the politics and the Powerhouse to Parramatta plan and, instead develop a cultural plan which is visionary not short sighted, constructive not destructive, cost effective not wasteful.  To wit, the renaissance of the Powerhouse in Ultimo and new community- informed cultural development in Parramatta.

The latest discussions about the cause of the Notre Dame conflagration are focussed on claims of decades of neglect affecting the state-owned cathedral, and the likelihood that renovations were the source of the spark for the destructive flames.

Investment in the Powerhouse Museum has been cut – its permanent exhibitions have been reduced by 40% and maintenance has been delayed over many years, leading to beat up claims that the Museum is not ‘fit for purpose’ when all that is needed is a program of renewal and repairs. A fraction of the $1.5bn plus slated for the move would readily fund this and museums across Western Sydney and NSW.

The Notre Dame fire has many lessons not the least of which is the high value people put on their cultural heritage, whether citizens of France or of the world – as evidenced by the flood of donations to restore the cathedral.

The government’s plan for the Powerhouse provoked a petition of more than 11,000 signatures, over 250 submissions to the Inquiry – the vast majority against the move and, a roll call of letters and public statements supporting Western Sydney’s cultural development, and decrying the plan to move the Powerhouse to Parramatta – an impossibility given its heart is the former Ultimo Power House.

From the Royal Society of NSW, the Australian Institute of Architects NSW, the Australia International Council of Monuments and Sites, Engineers Australia NSW, National Trust NSW to the Design Institute of Australia, Harden-Murrumburrah Historical Society and Orange and District Historical Society – all support the Powerhouse Museum’s future in Ultimo.

Sir Neil Cossons, former Director of the Science Museum, London and an admirer of the Powerhouse Museum said, “Loss of the Powerhouse would seriously diminish Australia’s cultural life and reputation” when informed of the Powerhouse to Parramatta plan and its consequences when the Inquiry Report was released.

The continuing opposition to the move and widespread incredulity that the government is rolling along with such a misguided plan, have highlighted the government’s heedless disregard for NSW’s cultural heritage – specifically the 139 year old Powerhouse Museum, an institution championed by Sir Henry Parkes and endowed by generations of the people of NSW – the people’s museum.

Jennifer Sanders
Former Deputy Director, Powerhouse Museum, museum and heritage consultant, former member National Cultural Heritage Committee