Heritage of the Powerhouse Museum:

What’s at stake in the move to Parramatta

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The exhibits’ home is this museum.

Iconic museum items are always associated with the museums in which they are displayed. We think of the Mona Lisa and we think immediately of the Louvre. It is even more significant when an object is in a museum where it has a direct connection with the nearby area.

To take an object almost at random: the Bleriot aircraft hanging from the transport hall ceiling was imported to Sydney in 1914, assembled nearby and first flew from Victoria Park, Zetland. Maurice Guillaux, the pilot, flew from Rose Bay in Australia’s first seaplane, and was an early pioneer of Mascot and Richmond airfields. His spectacular Sydney displays brought the city to a near-standstill. Sydney was the destination for Australia’s first airmail flight (Melbourne / Sydney) in July 1914, the longest such flight at that time. It attracted world-wide attention. In 2014 the centenary of this flight was commemorated with a re-enactment involving over twenty historic aircraft. The event was conducted by the Aviation Historical Society of Australia, an affiliated society of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. The mail was received at the Powerhouse in a Bastille Day commemoration that was the largest for many years.

About 30 pre-World War I aircraft have been preserved world-wide. Because of its remarkable history, the Bleriot can claim to be the third or fourth most significant of these survivors.

This aircraft belongs in this museum at this location.

The story of the acquisition of the Boulton and Watt steam engine is even more inspiring. Professor Liversidge found it unused in Britain and acquired it for the Technological Museum, where it was installed in the early twentieth century. Restored as a result of a public appeal in the 1980s, it takes pride of place in the Powerhouse Museum. It is the oldest working engine of its kind in the world.

Almost unique in the world is the fact that we have preserved New South Wales’ very first train, and it is displayed within a kilometre or so of its terminus.

The Boulton and Watt engine, and the train, gain even more significance when considered as part of the Steam Revolution collection of the museum. It is certainly the most outstanding collection of steam engines in the southern hemisphere, and among the four or five best such collections in the world.

The collection is displayed in the very building that was Australia’s first industrial steam-powered electric generation station. This ambience cannot possibly be re-created in a purpose-built museum.

Further, the cost of replicating the steam production and reticulation apparatus at Parramatta will be huge.

And when this is achieved, we will still not have the items displayed in such an appropriate setting as at present: the mere size of the Steam Revolution display area cannot be easily replicated, and the Case cranes even if they can be relocated, will completely lose their context. The Case cranes are the only major item of equipment left from the original power station, and are almost unique in the world.

Again, we have one of the original 1899 trams that inaugurated Sydney’s first tram service,  and it is displayed in the Powerhouse Museum, part of which is the original tram shed.

This section has concerned itself only with the major items, but this is only part of the story. The museum catalogue lists 3495 objects related to Ultimo: these include a large collection of archives and artefacts donated by the Harris family, very relevant to the history of the local area: the museum is in Harris Street, named after the first landowner, Dr John Harris, who settled here in 1800. The Harris family has been a major force in the development of Ultimo.