Powerhouse Museum backflip 'a victory for cultural life'

The CFMMEU and the North Parramatta Residents Action Group outside historic Willow Grove announcing the Green Ban. Photo: North Parramatta Residents Action Group – NPRAG/FB

"We just won our campaign to save the Powerhouse," Greens MP Jamie Parker, a leader of the community fight to halt the proposed demolition of the museum, proclaimed on July 4.

"Over five years of campaigning, we have built a powerful alliance to defend the Powerhouse, promote arts and culture, and protect Sydney's heritage. This win proves that when our community works together we can achieve great things.

"Thank you to all the residents who joined our rallies over the years and everyone involved in [the campaign organisations] Save the Powerhouse and Powerhouse Museum Alliance." 

Parker was responding to news that the Ultimo home of Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum, which was due to close to the public on July 1, had been given a last-minute reprieve.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced on July 4 that the Powerhouse would retain its building and operate across two sites — the Ultimo site and the planned purpose-built museum in Parramatta, due to be completed by 2024.

The government had planned to sell the Ultimo premises to property developers for an estimated $195 million, with funds from the sale going towards the building costs of the new museum. Some of the money that had been earmarked for relocation to Parramatta will be used for upgrading the Ultimo location.

However, Parker warned: "While this is a huge step forward, much work lies ahead. The government won't sell-off the Ultimo site, but they are sticking to their plan to destroy heritage properties in Parramatta."

Greens MP David Shoebridge agreed. “The government has been resisting for years and has now buckled to the inevitability of the great majority — starting with keeping the Ultimo site. Still much more to be done to save Parramatta’s heritage but today this is a win!”

Leo Schofield, a former trustee of the iconic applied arts and sciences museum, wrote on July 5: "For those of us who opposed the 'move' or 'relocation', it was never a question of one or the other. Museums are about collections and in the Powerhouse's astonishing, eclectic holdings there are enough objects to fill two museums and specialist satellite institutions.”

General secretary of the Public Service Association Stewart Little welcomed the decision to retain the Ultimo Powerhouse facility: “This means hundreds of jobs in the culture sector are saved,” he said. “It also means Australians can enjoy the rich cultural heritage that the Powerhouse has to offer.”

Progress on the Parramatta development, which will receive $1.17 billion in investment from the state government, has slowed to a crawl. Concerns over the new museum’s location on a floodplain and objections to the demolition of heritage-listed buildings and trees, led to the NSW branch of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union placing a Green Ban on the site on June 30, adding industrial weight to the campaign to save the two state heritage-listed buildings.

As late as June 30, Berejiklian was adamant that the Powerhouse Ultimo relocation to Parramatta would go ahead. Clearly union and community pressure played a major role in forcing the government to change course.

The campaign to fully retain the Ultimo location, as well as to construct a new museum in Parramatta on an appropriate site, while preserving local heritage, will continue to face major challenges.  

Green Left has been there every step of the way, promoting the campaign and encouraging readers to get involved in the fight. It was there to celebrate the victory for people power represented by the NSW government's backdown and it will be there campaigning to preserve the heritage sites in Parramatta.

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