Heritage of the Powerhouse Museum:

What’s at stake in the move to Parramatta

Back to menu   Story so far   World significance   The buildings  Museum history  Iconic exhibits  Bicentenary  Reputational damage  People  Cold hard cash

This museum commemorates the bicentenary.

Many events of 1988 were spectacular, and they remain as strong memories for those who attended. It was also a marker of Australian development. Ideas such as multiculturalism, Australian national identity, and the interpretation of history came to the forefront of national discussion: the Aboriginal actions brought the notion of invasion to the popular consciousness.

Brisbane held an Expo that took it from being a country town to being a world city. Sydney had the Darling Harbour re-development as a permanent marker of the bicentenary. Taking over the land of the defunct Darling Harbour goods yard, the development included the creation of a shopping centre, an entertainment centre, an exhibition centre and a conference centre. These were designed by well-known architects and were regarded as good examples of contemporary architecture.

The Exhibition Centre (left)was designed by Philip Cox and was awarded the Sulman medal for architecture in 1989. The Convention Centre (right) was designed by John Andrews, an Australian architect who has designed many award-winning buildings, Australia and overseas. Both have been demolished to enable new development.

The shopping centre is also to be demolished to make way for a new shopping centre with residential towers. The National Maritime Museum, completed 1991, is set to be the only surviving new building of the era when the Powerhouse is 'moved'.

The conversion of the Ultimo Power House to form the new museum was indeed a more inspiring project than the erection of the new buildings elsewhere. It was awarded the Sulman medal. The NSW Government Architect, J W Thompson, and the project architect Lionel Glendenning, were both recognized. The post-war buildings were demolished to make space available for a new wing in the contemporary style, and the rest was refurbished to ‘better than new’ standard. The basic structure, and almost all the brickwork was in surprisingly good condition.

The conversion had some surprising benefits. The huge areas that were necessary for the early machinery made for spectacular galleries. The 1926 switch room is ideal for displays of valuable items that may not be exposed to bright lighting. The two chimneys in the transport hall were too difficult to remove, but form an important part of the air conditioning mechanism that also made use of the cooling water piped from Darling Harbour.

The Harwood Building and the former Ultimo Post Office (now the PHM volunteer centre) both appear in the register of the National Estate as noteworthy historic buildings. The museum itself is not listed on the register: it was never thought that this would be necessary! Steps are being taken to remedy this.

We seem to be taking Dubai as a model for our modern architecture, and maybe we could also emulate the way the city preserves its heritage. The national museum is in the restored Al Fahidi Fort, built from 1787, and the oldest building in Dubai.