Friday 26 July 2024

Contact 1800 772 679

Contact 1800 772 679

The magazine of the Public Service Association of NSW and the Community and Public Sector Union (NSW Branch)

Power Plays

Power Plays

Too much uncertainty surrounds a much-loved cultural treasure

For years, a Sydney cultural landmark has been a political football, plagued by announcements of closures, relocations and staff movements, with governments of all political hues being reluctant to tell the full story.

The announcement in February 2024 that staff at the Museum of Applied Arts and Science, better known as the Powerhouse Museum, would be permanently relocated to Parramatta and Castle Hill is devastating for PSA members and the latest in a series of decisions that have undermined the facility and its once- proud place in the centre of Sydney’s cultural landscape.

In February 2024, a protest outside the museum had demanded answers from Arts Minister John Graham and Premier Chris Minns: what was to become of the facility and where would its hundreds of staff members work?

Union leaders, including PSA General Secretary Stewart Little, and community figures spoke of their anger about the situation to attendees and the media.

A government that had gone to voters pledging to preserve the site was now coming across as evasive about the future of a Sydney icon and the people who run it.

Now, it seems, the protesters had their answers.

Since it opened in 1988, the Powerhouse Museum has been a mainstay of school excursions and weekends in the city. Defying the stuffy museum cliché of historic relics stuck behind glass, the Powerhouse won devotees with its hands-on displays and industrial heritage.

Its rooms filled with planes, trains and automobiles won over attendees of all ages. Its blockbuster shows of subjects other museums may find too lowbrow, such as contemporary fashion, The Wiggles and Star Wars memorabilia, had people queuing up.

Then, in February 2015, things went sour. The then Liberal-National Government announced the museum was to close and be relocated to Parramatta. Sold as a cultural win for the west, most people saw it for what it was, a real estate win for developers hungry for access to inner city land.

Then, in April 2018, the then Premier Gladys Berejiklian and then Arts Minister Don Harwin announced that while the Powerhouse Museum’s relocation was to go ahead and a cultural precinct would be retained in Ultimo.

“For many critics, the real worry was a cultural mainstay for decades was going to be reduced to a conference centre with a few fashion-focussed displays set up to preserve the myth that the museum was to be saved,” said Mr Little.

“A museum for the people was to be instead a venue serving drinks to the elite at product launches and functions.”

There were also doubts about the effect the relocation had on the valuable exhibits the museum was famous for.

“There is Boulton and Watt’s steam engine; a marvel only two people on the planet can put together,” said Mr Little. “It is celebrated worldwide, and yet the Berejiklian Government wanted to risk taking it apart to move it to Parramatta.

Likewise, there are planes that would be a nightmare to break apart and put together again.

“Another worry is the new site. Anyone living in the area knows the Parramatta River regularly bursts its banks. The new site was a risk.”

Cultural commentator Elizabeth Farrelly was among the many critics of the plans to move items such as Boulton and Watt’s steam engine to a flood-prone site.

“We propose to move it without expert metallurgical advice, shove it in indefinite storage and display it in some flood-prone foyer-cum-event space with no possibility of the motion that is its whole point and purpose,” she wrote in a column in The Sydney Morning Herald in 2020. “What is wrong with us?”


In addition, the new site was home to Willow Grove, a rare historic property providing a welcome contrast to the gleaming modern towers of Parramatta.

The PSA fought long and hard to prevent the Ultimo site’s closure, working alongside community groups such as the Save the Powerhouse Committee.

“Of course we were not opposed to a new museum site being established in Parramatta,” said Mr Little. “But the site in Ultimo needed to be preserved. And Willow Grove should have been saved, too.”

In the end, despite sabre-rattling by the Construction, Forestry, Mining, and Energy Union, Willow Grove fell to the wrecker’s ball. It was dismantled and is now in pieces in storage somewhere.

Plans to rebuild it in a North Parramatta site have not come to fruition.

“Willow Grove’s fate proved the Liberal-National Government was serious about the move and the future of the Ultimo Powerhouse site seemed ever more perilous,” said Mr Little. “The PSA and the community groups fighting for Ultimo had to step up.”

The fight continued and in July 2020, the State Government relented and decided to keep and renovate the Ultimo building instead of demolishing it.

In the 2023 state election campaign, the Labor Party upped the ante, boosting its cultural credentials with a promise to save the Ultimo site.


However, uncertainty has soured the optimism that followed the election win in March 2023. The following February, after months of uncertainty, unions and

social groups, under the gaze of the media, issued their demands for an end to the subterfuge and secrecy over the closure.

“There’s no plan for refurbishing the museum, other than it is going to take about three years,” said Mr Little to the crowd. “They don’t want a plan. They want to close it.”

The weekend after the protest, the museum was closed for what was announced as roughly three years, which, as the PSA’s Mr Little pointed out, was more than enough time to fix the roof and relocate the entrance to a different side of the building.

Later that month the State Government dropped the bombshell;

existing staff moved to Parramatta and Castle Hill during the closure should make themselves comfortable, as they weren’t coming back to Ultimo.

“When asked will staff return from Castle Hill or Parramatta after the Ultimo site reopens the answer has been an emphatic ‘no’, which raises more concerns,” said PSA Industrial Manager Siobhan Callinan. “The Powerhouse advised on 22 February that new staff would be hired in the future when the Ultimo site reopens.

“This means the new rebuilt site, marketed by the government as a world-class venue that would rival the Smithsonian in Washington, would go ahead without the combined curatorial knowledge of the staff who had made the Powerhouse Museum such a success in the past.

“How can they run a merit-based selection process in the future if qualified staff are discounted simply because they had worked in Ultimo prior to 2024? It does not make sense.

“Surely a new museum site would operate more efficiently with staff who had worked in a museum.”

Ms Callinan pointed out the issues of moving staff from Ultimo, which is minutes’ walk from Central Station and handy to bus and light rail routes, to Castle Hill, which sits in Sydney’s car- dependent northwestern suburbs.

“The location at Castle Hill is not readily accessible via public transport and the PSA wants more positive flexibility from the employer rather than the current proposal which requires the employee to request a Flexible Working Arrangement,” she said.

The Castle Hill site is a 30-minute, hilly walk from two Metro stations in an area served by infrequent bus services.

Mr Little slammed the plans to relocate staff.

“We need a modern, flexible working arrangement for members in line with the rest of the Public Sector instead of ‘you work where we want you to work’,” he said. “Obviously if staff are qualified and want to return to Ultimo, this should be an option. The recent ruling banning them from returning is a farce.

“There is still office space in the Harwood Building in Ultimo. This should be an option, unless it has been slated for other uses or maybe an eventual sale and this is yet another secret being kept from us.

“The Minister has promised us the Powerhouse is remaining as a museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. What we are seeing, though, is the site becoming Don Harwin’s original, misguided vision of a cultural-industries precinct.

“We deserve better.”

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