Heritage of the Powerhouse Museum:

What’s at stake in the move to Parramatta

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…… and the museum has its own heritage.

The buildings are indeed magnificent, but institutions such as museums also have non-material heritage.

Australia showed interest in museums from a very early stage in its history. The Australian Museum in Sydney can trace its origin to about 1821, an amazing development for the young penal colony. It capitalized on the current enthusiasm among the upper classes for zoology and botany. Sydney University, founded 1851, established the Nicholson Museum for antiquities in 1860.

The Sydney International Exhibition opened in September and closed seven months later. It put Australia on the world map as an important country, and Australians perceived this. The trustees of the Technological, Industrial and Sanitary museum, envisaged as ‘the museum for the industrial classes’, selected items from the display for their new museum but in 1882 the building was destroyed in a spectacular fire.

The Technological Museum, the immediate predecessor of the Powerhouse Museum, opened in 1893 in Harris Street next to the Technical College. As well as being a standard museum with displays, it was a leader in scientific and industrial research, performing much the same function as the modern CSIRO. For example, a farm block was purchased at Castle Hill for growing trial plots of eucalyptus trees for eucalyptus oil. This is the site of the Castle Hill Discovery Centre, a vital part of he Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

On the lower floor work was done in animal husbandry, including wool classing; the establishment of recognised standards for the exported wool was vital to the wool industry when Australia ‘rode on the sheep’s back’.

The Museum’s early period was guided by some remarkable people:
(l to r): Professor Liversidge, an eccentric but dedicated worker in the cause of developing this innovative museum – (he was the first dean of the faculty of Science at Sydney University, at a time when science was regarded as being of far lower status than the classics); Richard Baker, director for 27 years, established the academic reputation of the museum – he is seen with a bunch of eucalyptus, in suitably casual garb; Arthur Penfold, director 1927-1955

Under Arthur Penfold the museum gained a reputation for being at the forefront of technology and education. In the early 1950s the only place to see television was at the technological museum; the transparent woman (imported 1954) created a furore: The first viewing sessions were segregated by gender and a trained nurse was on standby to assist if anyone was overcome by the experience.

The museum at this site was a very important part of Sydney life and even today holds strong affection for those old enough to remember it.

But as the twentieth century progressed, it became obvious that it was inadequate as a display centre and that the times were changing. Museums, for example, were providing more activities for their visitors, not just displays in cases. More space was needed, and the brilliant solution was the rebirth of the derelict Ultimo Power Station as a state-of-the art museum.

Will the creation of a completely new museum at Parramatta be seen as a part of this developmental process? The evidence so far is not convincing!