Heritage of the Powerhouse Museum:

What’s at stake in the move to Parramatta

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We ignore the personal dimension at our peril.

There are many human stories that relate to the Powerhouse.

There are actually three people in this 1904 picture which makes up for its poor quality because of the story it tells. In the front we have Wally Heath, a boilermaker. He is weilding a steam pump to clean off salt encrustations from the boiler tubes. His assistants are behind him, barely visible. The temperature in which they are working is accurately recorded at 156° Fahrenheit, just under 70° Celsius. For this Wally received 9 shillings a day, rising to 10/- after a pay case in 1911.

The museum stands as a reminder to this type of human labour.


In terms of of the museum we have already mentioned Messrs Liversdge, Baker and Penfold, early directors. We could mention other remarkable directors, but other workers have also had remarkable influence on the musuem. One of these is Norm Harwood, after whom the Harwood Building was named. Norm was curator of transport and engineering from 1950 to 1980, at a time when a lot of our heritage was being destroyed by unthinking modernisers. For example, it seems incredible that in 1956 the coastal artillery battery on North Head, useless for defence, but amazing technology, was just cut up for scrap metal. Wartime aircraft were also scrapped in huge numbers, some of those surviving being the results of illegal individual action.


There are countless examples of significant acquisitions brought into the collection at Norm Harwood’s initiative. Working with virtually no acquisitions budget, he recognized the value of discarded machinery or dilapidated vehicles that could be ‘rescued’ rather than purchased. He saw a future when the Museum’s collection would finally have the funding it so desperately needed to be restored and conserved, properly accommodated and showcased. The crowds that mill around the transport gallery, or are guided through the Castle Hill collections are not aware of the amazing contribution of this man, for whom the best memorial is the building that bears his name. Typical of these acquisitions is the 1904 McLaren steam traction engine, obtained from a farm at Bathurst in 1962; Norm acquired it, delivered to Sydney, for a total of £25

The Volunteers

Picture: Alex, who is studying theatre arts and administration, working full time and volunteering at PHM. She is demonstrating a discovery station designed and built by another volunteer, a former chief engineer of a trans-national technology company.

As well as staff, the museum has always been able to attract high-quality volunteers. About 400 volunteers work for the total MAAS organization, and about half of these are at PHM. They fill many roles. Many have had distinguished careers in a wide variety of fields. There is a sizeable group of young people: typically, they are studying full-time, often doing PhDs in various fields, and working to support themselves. They want the experience so as to get into the competitive museum field, and a positive reference is prized on any CV.

At least four former curators regularly work as volunteers. Their input should be particularly valued by the museum as of recent years positions for specialist curators such as those for transport, space and aviation, have been made redundant.

From this 2001 picture of volunteers, at least 15 are still ‘on the staff’.

The museum has a particular strength because of all this human history, past and present. To an extent, new associations would be formed at Parramatta, but there would be definite losses as a result of this move.

The following section deals briefly with the logistic problems of the move and also with the financing of the total process. Major difficulties need to be resolved.

But even if these are resolved, there is a huge reservoir of emotional attachment to this museum on the current site. Despite appalling weather, there have been major protest meetings: as time goes on, such activities will escalate.

This is a factor that must be taken into account in the total equation.