The powerhouse journey to save the museum

The Minns government has announced plans to scrap the redevelopment of the Powerhouse Museum and instead invest in its restoration, choosing the more sustainable option and ensuring that the historic precinct continues to shine. Read about the highlights of the National Trust (NSW)’s campaign to save this beloved jewel of Sydney’s history.

For almost a decade the National Trust has been campaigning to save both the Powerhouse Museum structure and its contents. In March 2015, the newly elected government announced their plan to move the Powerhouse Museum west and sell the Ultimo site, abandoning Pyrmont’s biggest cultural drawcard and the heritage buildings onsite. Since this announcement, the National Trust, amongst many others, has campaigned far and wide to keep the historic site alive.

Over many years, this battle has included campaigns to save the Ultimo Powerhouse from being sold; stop historic Willow Grove from being demolished for the new Parramatta Museum; retain the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences collection onsite; and finally to save the existing Powerhouse Museum buildings from being trampled by a giant, unsympathetic new design. Only last month it was announced by the current government that the Powerhouse Museum Ultimo will undergo a ‘heritage revitalisation’ and that the Wran Building will be retained rather than entirely redeveloped.

Powerhouse heritage and legacy

Before the most recent announcement, the Powerhouse Museum was slated for a huge redevelopment. The proposal was worrying on two heritage fronts: for both the museum collection and for its historic buildings.

The new plans for Powerhouse Ultimo did not specify the inclusion of the current museum collection, rather the focus was on fashion and design. Even the name ‘museum’ had been dropped from the title of the project. It should be noted that the National Trust has an entirely standalone register listing for the museum collection, indicating its value. The Museum of Arts and Applied Sciences, listed in 1974, was actually the first of the National Trust listings in relation to the Powerhouse Museum, which noted that: “[the museum] contains a priceless collection of objects of historical and scientific interest from Australia and overseas.”

The majority of this priceless collection was likely to be moved to storage in western Sydney, and at best would only be retrieved for occasional showcases. The loss of public access to our history of technological development as a country would be detrimental to our cultural and educational systems. We hope that the heritage revitalisation of the Powerhouse Museum includes this amazing existing collection.

Architecturally, the decision to focus on heritage is also a fantastic outcome. The Powerhouse Museum contains a wealth of significant and diverse structures – ranging from the powerhouse, office building, engine room, turbine hall, switch house, Harwood building and the Sulman award winning Wran building.

The now revoked $500 million development proposed to demolish the purpose-built Wran Museum building, would have destroyed a modern architectural gem, and one of the final landmarks of Neville Wran’s legacy. Furthermore, the size and scale of the preliminary designs in its place would have completely overcrowded the existing historic powerhouse buildings, diminishing their prominence, stature and visibility throughout Ultimo.

The redevelopment also went against the advice of prominent and well-respected heritage architect, Alan Croker, with his report being buried in order to move forward with the new proposal. The decision to revitalise instead of redevelop makes it more likely that these culturally significant buildings will continue to shine as the houses of the museum collection.

What lies ahead

The campaign to save the Ultimo Powerhouse Museum has been a marathon, and while there is still much of it to be run, the achievements to date are a feat of relentless community advocacy. Over the past eight years it is community backlash that has managed to change this outcome from a complete loss of the Ultimo Powerhouse Museum to a ‘heritage revitalisation’. We cannot guarantee what the revitalisation design will contain, or the decisions of future governments to come, but what we can rely on is the continued strength of community spirit and advocacy for heritage conservation throughout NSW, especially for the Powerhouse Museum.

The decision to revitalise rather than redevelop sets a positive example for both heritage and sustainability in NSW. It indicates that the NSW Government places value on our cultural heritage and sets a standard that it does not believe in the careless demolition of our history. Furthermore, the choice to retain the Wran is the ecologically sustainable option; the demolition of an enormous and largely functional 35 year old building does not prioritise the environment in our accelerating climate crisis. Remember: the greenest building is the one that already exists.

The National Trust hopes that this choice to focus to prioritise heritage and sustainability continues to eventualise for future developments, both large and small, across the state. We’ll be keeping an eye out on what is to come.

The National Trust of Australia (NSW) mission is to advocate for the conservation of built, cultural and natural heritage. For more than 75 years, we have been at the centre of the state’s most important heritage campaigns. Explore more of our advocacy work.


Powerhouse timeline


Charlotte Anlezark


Join the Conversation

  1. Thank heavens for some common sense with this stupid “thought bubble” which grips the government of the day from time to time of ripping historicaly significant buildings down. The technical collection the Powerhouse housed should be retained, not shoved away in a tin shed at Castle Hill. That is the downside to this whole sorry story along with the loss of Willow Grove.

  2. In my view the Trust’s lobbying activity and activism concerning the Powerhouse Museum has not been a useful allocation of scarce resources. Nor do its actions to date bring any credit on the Trust. Moving the Powerhouse to Parramatta is a fitting initiative to expose the manufacturing heritage of Sydney. I have been to the Ultimo Powerhouse many times since it was established and over that period of have seen it decline from an unremarkable industrial museum to an arts and craft display space. The real crime, if there is one, has been the failure of the Powerhouse to display and rediscover the heritage of industrial manufacturing in Sydney and the hidden gems that the Powerhouse holds but has never displayed nor properly recorded and made accessible. I cannot access any history on items held by the Museum from, for example, CC Engineering and the TEC in Glebe, Brackenbury and Austin in Surry Hills, nor Demco in Redfern. Nor has the industrial heritage of Eveleigh Railway Workshops, once the largest industrial complex in the southern hemisphere, been adequately protected, recorded or preserved. The move to Parramatta is an opportunity to reclaim the Powerhouse as a museum about industry, which was the original intent. Start promoting the new Powerhouse and ensure that the industrial artefacts it holds can be accessed and appreciated by all.

  3. I was very relieved to learn of the decision to maintain the Power House and retain Wran Buildings.

    I will not consider “Job Done” until the collection is again re installed in this purpose built facility. I will continue to lobby accordingly and would like to be kept informed of developments.

  4. John Bates unfortunately Parramatta Powerhouse was never going to be a Museum fit for the purpose of replacing The Powerhouse Ultimo.
    It may have held some items that could fit in without comprising the space needed to be rented out for weddings and the like. An entertainment centre.
    I think it is well within the National Trusts remit to campaign against wilful destruction of our heritage.
    I sincerely hope Parramatta gets a proper museum befitting this important historical city.

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