‘Moving’ our unique Powerhouse Museum is a bad choice for creating a cultural icon in Parramatta’

Of all possible cultural institutions that could be chosen to be the flagship of a cultural boom in Parramatta, it is hard to find one that poses more difficulties or is more unsound in terms of economics.

Non-Government sources valued the Ultimo PHM bare site, ready for ‘urban renewal’[6] (see Premier’s initial announcement) at $250 million maximum.[7] Costs of simply removing the exhibits and storing them pending the construction of the Parramatta museum were conservatively estimated at $200 million minimum, and demolition / decontamination costs at $10 million[8]. With administrative and planning expenses considered, there would be, at best, very little money left towards the Parramatta building. This financial situation has been made even worse by the (slightly less odious) recent decision that some original buildings would be repurposed and that a cultural presence would be retained at Ultimo.

The Powerhouse Museum has specially strengthened ceilings from which aircraft can be hung and specially strengthened floors to bear the weight of locomotives and other heavy objects. There is an elaborate steam reticulation network that brings life to the best collection of working steam engines in the Southern Hemisphere and one of the best in the world. All these things would be wasted by degrading the Powerhouse Museum as proposed, and would have to be replicated in the new building at huge expense. The big exhibits would have to be, by and large, last out of Ultimo and first in to Parramatta, with consequent costly building delays.

None of these costs would be incurred if Australia’s only Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences was left where it is, in the most accessible position for visitors from intrastate, interstate and international visitors. None of these costs would be incurred if any other recommendation for the site was accepted. Many examples of cultural facilities that would be more suitable for Parramatta were listed in the submissions and evidence for the Inquiry; see, for example, ## 18 of this booklet.

In regard to working in museums, Root Partners are almost certainly the best qualified of all entities involved in the preparation of the Business Case. Peter Root was largely responsible for moving the current major exhibits into the new museum of 1988. We therefore take great notice of the Root Partners findings, and respect the caveats and restrictions that they have placed on their work[9].

We would, however appreciate knowing the terms of reference for their employment on this project. Incidentally, people who worked on the establishment of the current museum recall the openness of the procedures, planning and financial implications of the process, in distinction to the present setup.[10]

We agree with Root Associates that items such as the Catalina, Boulton and Watt engine, Beechcraft VH-AMB and rocket engine need careful analysis prior to any ‘decanting’ process, involving the preparation of detailed relocation plans. These do not yet appear to have been developed. Some areas of considerable concern:


·       Moving the Catalina will be a mighty project. Just inserting it in the new museum will be very difficult: the illustration shows just one problem: there are only two possible entrances on the Parramatta site that will fit the disassembled aircraft (blue rectangles). Bearing in mind that it will have to be almost ‘last out and first in’ it will impose major constraints on such things as the positioning and accessibility of the aircraft gallery.

·       We believe that the pioneering aerial ambulance Beechcraft VH-AMB t will be even more difficult to move than the Catalina (details in endnote) [11]

·       Major items are a problem but the 240,000 smaller items are not the kinds of things that one just puts into a packing case and moves. The item depicted below is an example.

·       We are concerned that there are not enough qualified and experienced people available to perform the necessary work, particularly after the staff cuts of May 2014[12].

It is important to stress that the decorative arts function of this museum is as significant as the science / machinery emphasis. The title of the museum, (Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences), emphasises the interface between these two disciplines, and this is becoming more and more important as technology continues its exponential growth. The decorative arts collection must be completely safeguarded both from damage and attrition, and must remain in the most accessible place for its exhibition.

This Samurai armour and horse tack item dates from1775. It is perfectly preserved and takes pride of place in the current Icons exhibition. But it demands highly skilled care. Its value is about $550,000. It is by no means unique in this collection in terms of its significance, value and need of expert care.

(Picture: MAAS website)

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[6] The use of the Ultimo site for ‘urban renewal’ was mentioned in Mr Baird’s early announcements and at least as late as The Australian, Michaela Boland, August 5, 2015. It is also a constant theme in the standardised replies sent by the Government in response to communications sent to them, ‘Proceeds from the urban renewal of the existing Powerhouse Museum site in Ultimo will be committed to funding the new Museum at Parramatta’ (letter from Arts NSW on September 2, 2015)

[7] See statement from John Zheng, Director of L J Hooker, Pyrmont, SMH February 26 2015 and also http://lockoweb.com/heritagephm/ darling_harbour_real_estate.htm .

[8] The power station often used fuel oil and engineers on our team pointed out the dangers of residual contamination from this cause. This will not be an issue unless the relevant buildings are demolished and floors removed.

[9] Collection and Logistics plan for the New Museum, 27 June 2017, page 2

[10] Highly qualified members of the email group who would prefer not to be named.

[11] The Catalina can be disassembled, the wing being one separate piece and the fuselage, less rudder and tailplane, another. The monocoque construction of the Beechcraft means that it cannot be disassembled: the fuselage skin is a structural element. Only a small amount of wingtip area can be removed. The aircraft will have to be lowered on to a specially made cradle, whereas the Catalina can be supported by relatively simple framework. Ex-employees who were present when the Beechcraft was installed state that the aircraft, while safely preserved in its present position, was subject to strains during installation that might cause big problems when removed. The Beechcraft will require a larger hole in the wall to be removed than the Catalina, but an even bigger hole will be needed to remove the Apollo rocket engine, which must be carried in its supportive frame: it will not rest on the exhaust flange. Such details do not appear to have been addressed by the Business Case documents. (Same source as previous endnote).

[12] ‘Powerhouse Museum to clear out one-fifth of staff’. SMH 1 May 2014