Powerhouse Museum

The Powerhouse Museum opened on March 10, 1988. The challenging design by NSW Government Architect J Thompson and Design Architect Lionel Glendenning for the design of the Powerhouse Museum converting the shell of an industrial building into one of the world’s most up-to-date museums was deservedly given the 1988 Sulman award for architectural merit.

In 1997 the National Trust listed the former Ultimo Depot Tramshed on the National Trust Register. On 27th February, 2015 the NSW Premier the Hon Mike Baird announced that Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum would be moved to Parramatta, in the city’s west, if the Coalition Government were re-elected. A site in Parramatta had not been chosen and the existing site at Ultimo would be sold to developers. It appears that Mr Baird considered that his government’s re-election would be a mandate for the sale and move rather than traditional public consultation processes.

A NSW Parliament Upper House Inquiry has revealed that the construction of a new building at the Parramatta site proposed for the Museum move would impact on two historic properties from the late 1800s – Willow Grove and St. Georges Terrace, listed on the National Trust Register in 1985 and 1984.

On 4 July, 2020, the NSW Government announced that it would “retain the Ultimo museum”, stating “Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum at Ultimo will continue to welcome visitors to its renowned exhibits, with the NSW Government today announcing it will remain open”. The NSW Treasurer the Hon. Dominic Perrottet said the existing museum at Ultimo would provide “a jobs boost and support to the arts community, which has been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The National Trust welcome the decision to retain the Powerhouse at its Ultimo site and applaud the listing of the original Powerhouse Building on the State Heritage Register by Minister Harwin on 4 September 2020.

 

OUR POSITION

  • The Trust would oppose any demolition of the existing historic structure, the purpose built 1988 extension and extant components that demonstrate the Powerhouse’s original use.
  • The Trust supports the establishment of a Parramatta Branch of the museum with its own distinctive function and style but strongly opposes the closure of the Powerhouse Museum.
  • The National Trust calls on the NSW Government to invest in the future of the Powerhouse Museum at Ultimo, establish a new museum complex at Parramatta in consultation with the people of that city and encourage increased visitation by instituting free admission to its key Sydney Museums in line with the practice of other great tourism cities around the world.
  • The National Trust opposes the demolition of Willow Grove or St Georges Terrace at Parramatta, or any adverse impacts on these historic properties.

 

ACTION

The Trust will promote its views on the Powerhouse Museum in the media on this major proposal for a public museum icon.

Based on feedback from Built, Industrial and Landscape Committees the National Trust propose the following eight key points in relation to the “Ultimo Renewal” project:

  • Showcase the collection
    The Powerhouse collection is one of the best in the world, and needs to be recognized as such. The current presentation unfortunately does not accurately reflect the status of the collection. The renewal project should seek to carefully present the collection in a well-curated and engaging way.
  • Build the museum around key objects
    All great museums are constantly changing and evolving, but enjoy the prestige and permanence associated with key objects that people know and love, and which become part of a city’s cultural fabric. Any Powerhouse renewal must accommodate both temporary and permanent high-quality exhibition spaces.
  • Make the site an active place of conservation and research
    The Ultimo Powerhouse is in a perfect location adjacent to TAFE, UTS, Central Tech hub, etc to build on its legacy of conservation and research. An active conservation workshop on site is key to this role, and to the status of any museum.
  • Open the whole museum
    Like the planned expansion to the National Railway Museum in York, the powerhouse can be a place “connecting the past with the present to inspire the innovators of the future.” The retention and use of all buildings on the site will allow for a world-standard museum that can adapt and expand into the future. Many institutions across the globe (not simply museums, but even the National Theatre in London) now allow curated visitor access to “behind the scenes” workshops and storage areas as part of a more engaging visitor experience.
  • Greater connectivity.
    The museum needs to draw on the energy of the CBD. The original Powerhouse Museum very much focussed on Harris Street, but the new Darling Harbour, UTS, Central Station and ICC all mean that the museum has a new orientation. The Harwood Building becomes a key element that can help shape this connection and engage it with the Goods Line in particular.
  • Become a focal point.
    The Powerhouse needs to be re-established as the key institution of its kind. Numerous organisations and societies with links to the Applied Sciences and Decorative Arts should be able to use the facilities of the Museum for meetings, lectures and events.
  • Utilise historic space.
    The original form and character and dimensions of the original building spaces on the site should inform the way that they are utilised.
  • Public Ownership
    The legacy of investment by government in the conservation of this public asset should be ongoing. The Powerhouse Museum is a highly valued piece of public cultural infrastructure. Government ownership of the land, buildings and collection will ensure ongoing public access to this heritage place and its long-term use as a museum.

HISTORY

In 1976 the National Trust’s Industrial Heritage Committee resolved to list the Ultimo Power Station on the National Trust Register.

At that time the NSW Government was considering a site at Ryde for the construction of a new Museum of Technology. Several correspondents with the Sydney Morning Herald noted “the convenience of a near-city (Sydney) site for tourists, including of course the taxpayers of NSW. The Ultimo Powerhouse is part of a technologically rich neighbourhood, surrounded by old port and rail facilities, workshops and factories, markets and woolstores. And, it is within a few minutes’ walk of two important technical institutes.”

On 13 August, 1979 the Premier of NSW, the Hon. Neville Wran announced that the Utimo Power Station and Tram Depot would become a new Museum of Technology to replace the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences in Harris Street, Ultimo and, in his words, would become Sydney’s symbol of the 1980s and one of Sydney’s great attractions. The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences was founded in 1880, following the Sydney International Exhibition held in the Garden Palace building in Sydney’s Botanic Gardens in 1879. Exhibits illustrating scientific and technological achievements throughout the world formed the original collection of the then Technological, Industrial and Sanitary Museum. Sadly, almost the entire collection was lost during the fire which destroyed the Garden Palace in 1882. After a short stay in some temporary sheds behind Sydney Hospital, the Technological Museum as it later became known, moved to its new location in Harris Street, Ultimo in 1893.

A Heritage Council 1983 Report noted “the fabric of the Ultimo Power House embodies the spectacular growth of electric power in Sydney and the technological changes that accompanied that growth. The Power House housed the most important innovations in steam-electric generation from the late 19th Century to the mid 20th Century. At the time of the completion of the first expansion phase, Ultimo was the largest and most powerful electricity generating unit in the Southern Hemisphere. The overhead travelling cranes when installed were the most modern of their type in the world and are now rare. The Power House was built to supply electricity for the first major tramway in Australia and for the conversion of other tramways to electric traction. The tramway network revolutionised commuting in early 20th century Sydney and played a significant role in the growth of suburban Sydney.”