Powerhouse Museum ‘rejuvenation’ threatens to destroy its historic character

August 1, 2022
The Powerhouse Museum has been in Ultimo since 1983. Photo: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences

The campaign to save the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo continues after the New South Wales Coalition government announced plans to close it for “rejuvenation”. It is proposed to be a “creative industries precinct”, and reopen at the end of 2023 as “Ultimo Powerhouse”. The word “museum” will go.

Spokesperson for the Powerhouse Museum Alliance (PMA) Kylie Winkworth criticised the plan on July 14, saying it fundamentally changes its use and “breaks with the Powerhouse Museum’s historic mission as Australia’s only museum of applied arts and sciences”.

“The Powerhouse Museum has been in Ultimo since 1983,” she said. “Its mission and collection evolved in the context of its location and its historic partnerships with technical education, trades and industry. It has changed in tandem with the precinct. The museum has never been more relevant to Ultimo’s future.” 

Campaigner Tom Lockley criticised the government for declaring the project “state significant” — which means it can steamroll its plans through without local government approval.

“The process required public consultation,” Lockley said. “The comprehensive investigations of the huge first Legislative Council Inquiry produced clear evidence of malpractice, and the government has simply ignored it and carried on.”

The Conservation Management Plan, released on June 21, only requires the original Powerhouse buildings to be preserved, he said. “All vestiges of the award-winning Museum, and consequently, the [Neville] Wran building and all display facilities, may be removed.”

The government was forced to back down on its original plan to demolish the Ultimo site, sell the land to private developers and move the entire Powerhouse museum collection to Parramatta. The former Premier Gladys Berejiklian said in July 2020 that it would operate across the Ultimo site and the planned purpose-built museum in Parramatta, due to be completed in 2024.

Greens MLA Jamie Parker said at the time that more than five years of campaigning had “built a powerful alliance” to defend the Powerhouse, promote arts and culture and protect Sydney’s heritage. However, he warned then that “much work lies ahead”.

Now, Premier Dominic Perrottet's government wants to destroy the character of the Ultimo museum, while claiming it wants to “rejuvenate” the site.

Winkworth said in May last year that “the NSW government has hacked away at the Powerhouse Museum for the last 10 years, relentlessly cutting its budget, gutting the museum of expertise, competent leadership and good governance, undermining public trust and making museum policy on impulse round the campfire”.

Winkworth highlighted the scale of cuts to Powerhouse staff, with the curatorial team dropping from 49 to 18 people since the Coalition government came to power in 2011. “At the [2020] annual report … the museum had just 178 staff, a drop of more than 50 per cent.”

[Visit powerhousemuseumalliance.com to find out more about the campaign to save the Powerhouse.]

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