Thursday, 30 April 2015

Dislocating the Powerhouse

Powerhouse Museum, April 1988. The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences' Powerhouse Museum venue shortly after its opening.
Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (00219141)

On 26 November 2014, following months of rumour and speculation, the premier of New South Wales, Mike Baird, announced that Sydney's Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) was to be relocated from its current Ultimo venue, the Powerhouse Museum, to Parramatta, a suburban centre some 23 kilometres west of Sydney's CBD, where it would become part of an 'arts precinct' based around the somewhat grim, architecturally undistinguished, former premises of the King's School, dating from 1834. Baird was quoted as stating that moving the state's museum of design and technology from an inner city locale to a suburban hinterland was ‘an amazing opportunity and I think it shows we need to, think well beyond the CBD of Sydney; we need to spread these opportunities across the city.' The current site of the museum, the listed former Ultimo Power Station will be sold to developers and the proceeds used to part-fund an un-costed move of the museum's collection and a new building.
Old King's School – Parramatta, NSW (2012). Ambrose Hallen's original two-storeyed building of 1834 was significantly modified over the 130 years
it served as a private Anglican boys' school. Following its acquisition in 1968 by the the Askin coalition administration it was
repurposed as the Marsden Rehabilitation Centre for intellectually handicapped children.
In the lead-up to the March state election the Baird administration revealed further details of the planned shift and stated that all the funds gained from the sale of the museum site, envisaged in the region of $150-200 million, would be returned to the museum and that it would allocate $10 million 'to develop a business case for the Museum's relocation to ensure it remains the interactive and vibrant place enjoyed by children and families.' The announcement was greeted with enthusiasm by News Corp Australia newspapers with its populist Sydney tabloid the Daily Telegraph enthusing that it was 'Fair go for the West'. A grateful lord mayor of Parramatta declared the move 'visionary' and opined it would 'be a huge boost to local tourism and further cement the City's growing reputation as a major arts and cultural centre'. 

There are a number of reasons behind this proposal, not least the fact that the current conservative coalition state government's majority in the NSW Legislative Assembly was dependent on it winning a number of key western Sydney electorates. But the proposal is more than a cynical 'bread and circuses' move; it's also about the perceived failure of the Powerhouse Museum, a project sponsored by an Australian Labor Party administration that opened in the former Ultimo Power Station in March 1988. In the 27 years since the museum – recently re-branded with its official title – re-opened it has been presided over by five directors (Dr Lindsay Sharp, Terence Measham, Dr Kevin Fewster, Dawn Casey and Rose Hiscock), funding has diminished and visitor numbers have collapsed significantly. In the financial year 1988-1989, the year after it opened, the Powerhouse received state government funding of $24 million ($98 million in 2014 terms) and in the 2013-2013 financial year $28 million, a decrease of around 252%. In 1989-90, its first full year of operation, the Powerhouse attracted 2,112,001 visitors; in the 2013-2014 financial year only 381,582 visitors were recorded. On an annualised basis this represents a drop of some 82% since the museum opened. 

Charles Bayliss (1850-1897), The International Exhibition, from Lady Macquarie's Chair, [1879-1880].
State Library of NSW (SPF/265)

MAAS is one of the two institutional legacies of the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879-1880; the other was the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW). Conceived by the progressive administration of Henry Parkes in late 1878 and opening in September 1879 in the colonial architect James Barnet's  gargantuan wooden Garden Palace located in Sydney's Royal Botanic Garden, the exhibition was undoubtedly the city's single most spectacular event during the nineteenth century. Following its closure seven months later, the trustees of the Australian Museum  – which had been established in 1827 'with the aim of 'collecting many rare and curious specimens of natural history' – agreed to establish a branch museum within the Garden Palace based around a collection formed initially from a selection of the manufactured commodities shown at the exhibition. The institution was known as the Technological, Industrial and Sanitary Museum and its formation mirrored the establishment of similar museums around the world from the London-based Museum of Manufactures, which evolved into the Victoria and Albert and Science Museums (Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations,1851) to Kunstindustrimuseet, now Designmuseum Danmark (Den Nordiske Industri-, Landsbrugs- og Kunstudstilling, 1888). In the first of many setbacks that would befall the museum it was destroyed before it opened to the public when the Garden Palace was consumed in a spectacular conflagration in September 1882.

The Sydney museum finally opened to the public – in the former Agricultural Hall in the Domain – in 1889 before moving in 1893 to a modest purpose-built venue in Ultimo, designed by the architect William Kemp, where it was associated with the Sydney Technical College. The museum's title was contracted to the Technological Museum and its governance transferred from the trustees of the Australian Museum to the Minister of Public Instruction. The museum’s links with the college endowed it with a distinctly pedagogical role not only in respect of technology but also the applied arts. Together with the National Art Gallery of NSW, the museum was a repository for the objects used by graduates of the British National Art Training Scheme (the South Kensington Scheme) in teaching the college’s art and design education programmes.
Star Photo Co, Technological College, Sydney [about 1900]. The Technological Museum occupied the building to the left from 1893 to 1993.

Ultimo was not an ideal location for the museum: it was separated from the city centre by the Darling Harbour railway goods yards; the site was physically constrained meaning that the institution was unable to accommodate its growing collections on site; and, unlike its original site in the Botanic Gardens, it was a heavily polluted environment, plagued not only by the smuts and smells of local industry and the goods yard but also those emanating from the Ultimo Power House, which was erected some 500 metres away in 1899 to provide electricity for Sydney's tram network. Despite the dogged efforts of a succession of curators, the museum sank into underfunded obscurity, collecting what it could with scant resources and attempting not only to entertain generations of Sydney school children but also undertake research in those areas in which the museum collected, most notably in the fields of economic botany and chemistry.
NSW Government Printing Office, [Fictile ivory, ceramic and glass displays in the Technological Museum], 1906.
Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MRS 295/4/2)

There were stymied attempts to upgrade the museum in the aftermath of the Great Depression: in 1939 the curator, Arthur Penfold, went on a fact-finding tour of Europe (he was reputedly impressed by recent political developments in Germany); plans were drawn up for a new venue; and the museum's governance was restructured and formalised through The Museum of Technology and Applied Sciences Act 1945, which established a board of trustees to oversee its activities. Collecting became increasingly professionalised in the early 1970s with the appointment of specialist curators in fields such as applied arts, technology and transport and professional educators were recruited to articulate the museum's exhibitions to visiting schoolchildren.  
Deutsches Gesundheits-Museum, Köln, Anatomical model (1950-53). The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences obtained the model from Germany in 1954 ostensibly to further its mission 'to shape model citizens'; the scandal caused by its importation marked one of the few moments of newsworthiness in the museum's pre-Powerhouse history.
Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (H5789)
It was not until April 1978, when Joseph Glascott, an environmental reporter at the Sydney Morning Herald, published a series of in-depth articles  about the museum Sydney had forgotten, that things began to stir. While elected officials on both the political left and right during the 1970s and 80s viewed cultural grands projets as the ultimate political accolade, it was Glascott's revelatory articles that catalysed a remarkable shift in the attitude of the newly-elected Wran ALP administration toward the museum. In the 1977 state budget the museum's annual grant was a mere $770,000 whereas its sister institutions the Australian Museum and the AGNSW received $2.33 million and $1.3 million, respectively. By 1979 the situation was reversed when Neville Wran announced that, in anticipation of the bicentennial of European settlement in Australia, MAAS would move into new premises, a refurbished Ultimo Power House; the project was estimated to cost $35 million, an economic cost value of approximately $450 million in 2015 terms.

Notwithstanding a general perception, museums are more than exhibition venues. They're institutions with very specific remits based around collections, which they form, document, study, conserve, interpret and communicate to the wider public who, in most instances, ‘own’ them. Exhibitions are a vital part of a museum’s communication brief but – particularly in this increasingly virtual world – they’re not a core function. In the case of MAAS its collection was immense, of enormous scope and, in 1978, housed in appalling conditions and significantly under-researched. Quoted in Glascott's articles, the then director, Jack Willis, estimated that the museum's collection might comprise some 650,000 objects. But as many of these had not been seen for generations – much of the collection was stored in a filthy former wool store in Alexandria – and documentation was significantly deficient, this reckoning was more guesswork than established fact.

Museum staff do not spring fully-formed from the ether and, from 1980, the museum was required not only to recruit new staff and establish new professional disciplines, such as registration and conservation, but also to establish a new managerial framework that would react efficiently and effectively to the pressures exerted on the institution by a project of this immense scale. The result was a highly centralised, hierarchical management system, one that rewarded conformity, minimised challenges and sought to mimic the power differentials of the private sector while diluting the influence of those trained in museum disciplines; enthusiasm was stifled under a regime of micro-management and over-zealous bureaucracy.
The south wing of the first iteration of Sydney Hospital (1815) was redeveloped by the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in 1983 to show a small collection of Australian-themed decorative arts and in 1990 as a commercially-driven display of gold and mining. It was transferred to the Historic Houses Trust in 1997.
 J Bar at the English language Wikipedia 
The museum's building, collection and exhibition development programmes during the 1980s were, by any reckoning, extraordinary. The newly-appointed staff not only had to deal with developing and preparing a collection suitable for exhibition in the new facility but they were also tasked with redeveloping a new temporary exhibition space in Ultimo, Stage I (1981), a museum train (1984), which toured the state with a display of 'objects, pictures and ideas', and three historical venues including, in 1982, the former Sydney branch of the Royal Mint  in the south wing of the so-called Rum Hospital (John O'Hearen,1815), in 1984 the  Hyde Park Barracks (Francis Greenway, 1818) and in 1987 the Sydney Observatory (Mortimer Lewis, 1858). These projects all involved significant capital works to their buildings, both to conserve their fabric and to convert them into working museums.

Conversion of the shell of the Ultimo Power House was entrusted to the Government Architect's Branch of the Department of Public Works. Working with museum management, the Government Architect's project architect, Lionel Glendenning, developed a design that, in the fashionable post-modernist language of the time, made passing reference through a barrel-vaulted semi-glazed core to Joseph Paxton's 1851 Crystal Palace. It was an in-joke that had the unfortunate effect of highlighting the design's major problematic: that of responding to the exigencies of the site, flanked as it was by a major arterial road to the west and, on the city-side, a double-track freight railway, as well as being topped and tailed by semi-derelict depots and warehouses. 

Internally, the design struggled to meet the functional requirements of the museum, not only in terms of visitor circulation – a key consideration in the design of such public venues – but also in its provision of spaces for the semi-permanent exhibitions envisaged by the museum’s curatorial staff. In an attempt to overcome these limitations, management employed a number of external design consultants to complement a large team of in-house designers and a project director was brought in to ensure the museum's redevelopment adhered to its politically-driven timetable. Dame Margaret Weston, director of the London Science Museum, was conscripted to review the overall design. As a consequence of this ‘imperial’ intervention the architect Richard Johnson was recruited from the private sector in an attempt to provide visitors with a more seamless experience of the venue but the basic configuration was already established and little could be changed.  
Powerhouse Museum 'Style' exhibition, 1988. External design consultancies were deployed in an attempt to resolve
the venue's spatial deficiencies and to obscure 'gaps' in the museum's collection.
Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences

By the time the Powerhouse opened, Neville Wran was no longer premier and the ceremony was performed by an ALP premier, Barrie Unsworth, on the brink of losing a state election. Notwithstanding the political shenanigans associated with the project, the museum attracted enormous crowds. On the first Saturday some 36,000 visitors squeezed through the doors to inspect 25 semi-permanent thematic exhibitions that spanned the range of the museum's collection, showing objects that ranged from a steam-driven 1784 Boulton & Watt horizontal beam engine and a Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boat to Sèvres vases shown at the 1879 Sydney International Exhibition and Ettore Sottsass’ 1981 post-modern ‘Carlton’ room divider produced under the Italian Memphis brand. 

The exhibitions were broadly integrated around an overall theme of creativity and design. Moreover, in an effort to address the venue's chaotic internal plan and to deal with the hiatuses that had emerged once the museum's collection had been re-housed and more accurately documented and assessed (there had been many misattributions), project management decided to use exhibition design as the primary way of organising the space. Prioritising the design of exhibitions over their content saw the curatorial voice diminished, form dominate substance and interpretation subsumed to entertainment.

To some observers, the new displays evinced a lack of both a critical dimension and a coherent intellectual framework. As the Deakin University academics, Wade Chambers and Rachel Faggetter observed 'The rhetoric that accompanied the museum's opening led the serious visitor to expect a full delineation of the nature and role of creativity, design, invention and innovation in the Australian context.' but, they commented, 'success in this undertaking has so far proved elusive'. <W Chambers and R Faggetter, 'Australia's museum powerhouse', Technology and Culture, 33:3 (1992), 548-559, p. 552>Assessing the design-focussed exhibitions, Tony Fry argued that the museum aimed merely at being a provincial simulacrum of the London-based Science and Design Museums and New York's Cooper-Hewitt Museum. Discussing the museum's exhibitions he noted that: 'These conventionalist approaches create and induct Australian design history into the great men, great object, great stories syndrome, which not only obscures a more accurate history but also lays foundations for study in fictions and a cultural cringe fall-out.' <T Fry, Design history Australia (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1988), p. 42>. In a very real sense it was these intellectual deficiencies, this subscription to a fictional sense of Australia's material cultural history, which defined the renewed museum. Nonetheless, the visiting public evidently enjoyed the museum; it attracted over a million visitors in its first six months and garnered an impressive range of tourist awards. Scholarly recognition remained elusive.
'Kings, queens and soup tureens', a loan exhibition of 18th century objects from the Campbell Museum collection installed at the Hyde Park Barracks in 1990. Prioritising exhibition design over content resulted in an out of scale, assertively kitsch display that
distorted the historical narrative of the space and overwhelmed the objects
In the aftermath of the museum's re-opening, it became increasingly evident that the political energy channelled to develop the museum's new venues was a double-edged sword. A newly-elected Coalition administration, perceiving the museum as a creature of the former administration, sought to rein in what it judged to be political folly and extravagance. Rather than addressing the institutional deficiencies revealed by the project, consolidating the museum's achievements and developing strategic links with adjacent tertiary education institutions, management reacted to these political and ideological critiques by focussing on the museum as a brand and by developing strategies and implementing policies that, in the fashionable management jargon of the period, were responsive rather than pro-active. Rather than being collection-focussed in its activities the museum began to be seen by the public as a venue for highly-priced, externally-generated commercial exhibitions such as 'Audrey Hepburn, the woman, the style' and 'Star Wars: the magic of myth'. These interactive, often child-focussed, revenue generators had the unfortunate side effect of detracting from other, less well-promoted, exhibitions.

Design – in a travesty of its meaning as a process of production, mediation and consumption – became the museum's defining quality. In a somewhat simplistic reading of the process by the institution's management, design came increasingly to be understood as branding, as a sort of aestheticising; in truth it was, more ominously, a strategically-placed fig leaf for the gradual corporatisation of the museum’s culture. Under its guise the museum was radically de-intellectualised, allowing it to be perceived by dominant power formations as a site of mass culture, a distraction, and a counterbalance to the elitist preoccupations of, for example, the AGNSW or the National Trust of Australia (NSW branch).

Left: Emery Vincent (designers), Powerhouse Museum logo (1988). Centre: Unidentified designers, Powerhouse Museum logo (2000). Right Boccalatte (designers), Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences logo (2014)
As with many of the museums created on the cusp of the neo-liberal political ascendancy, the museum had argued that its success lay in the politically dangerous metric of visitor numbers. The new conservative Coalition state government, seeing visitor numbers as a potential income stream, immediately imposed an entrance charge of $5.00 (now $15.00); perhaps not enough to deter tourists and enthusiasts but more than enough to alienate casual visitors. The state government then began stripping the museum of its off-campus venues. The Hyde Park Barracks, which had ill-advisedly been used as a prestigiously-located temporary exhibition venue, was transferred to the more appropriate custodianship of the Historic Houses Trust of NSW, which had been formed in 1980 specifically to manage government-owned historic properties. Then, following an abortive attempt to transform it from under-visited museum of Australian decorative arts into a fully commercial gold and coining enterprise, the Mint followed suit. In an attempt to broaden its appeal, the museum re-purposed its Castle Hill store as a display storage facility known as the Powerhouse Discovery Centre in 2007. While its allure seems limited – it attracted 18,367 visitors in 2103-2014 – the museum has, in collaboration with the Australian Museum and Sydney Living Museums (the former HHT), decided to expand the facility. It's unclear what the impact of the move west will have on this development. 

Factors other than political and managerial were involved in the museum's perceived decline. From well before the start of the Powerhouse project to the present there have been calls for the museum's collection to be split. In an April 1978 letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, Leo Schofield, then a Sydney ‘tribal elder and gad about town’, argued that 'the time has clearly come to house and display the museum's science and decorative arts collections separately. Members of the public interested in steam engines, models of sailing ships and transparent plastic women are unlikely to be galvanised by a display of eighteenth century porcelain'<'Our dowdy technological museum', Sydney Morning Herald (24 April 1978), p.4>. Proponents of the split resurfaced in 2010 when the then director, Dawn Casey, dismantled ‘Inspired!’ a four year-old, semi-permanent decorative arts display. Responding to this perceived attack, Schofield again emerged on the letters page of the Herald arguing that ‘bit by bit, the applied and decorative arts are being de-emphasised and the program of exhibitions dumbed down’. Similar statements have been made more recently, albeit in not quite so condescending a manner.

It's an appealing conceit. Unlike many of its transport, technology and scientific exhibitions in the Powerhouse, the semi-permanent decorative arts and design exhibitions have proven more fugitive. Moving the decorative arts and design collections into a discrete space – preferably in the ‘cultural circuit’ around the Sydney Domain – while leaving the interactive geewhizzery, the machines and engines, the ‘popular stuff’, for the youthful masses would certainly make things far simpler for those proposing glamorous touring or collection-based exhibitions in keeping with the idea of a museum replicating, in a minor, provincial, way, the sophistry of the far better endowed V&A and Cooper Hewitt museums. This line of reasoning is both perniciously classist and fundamentally ahistorical, undermining MAAS’s abiding rationale as one of the world’s few museums of industrialisation – a veritable museum of manufactures – and leaving it open to the sort of disintegrative solution implied in the proposal to relocate the institution far from its roots.

The Baird administration has, for the wrong reasons, recognised that MAAS – one of the concealed glories of Sydney – is a problematic. It's located in a place that seems to operate against its foundation. Nor does it tie in comfortably to the nearby Darling Harbour public space with the Sydney Aquarium and the National Maritime Museum despite the pragmatic efforts of various directors to reorientate the museum's entrance so that it opens directly onto Darling Harbour. Outside the cultural circuit formed by the AGNSW, the Australian Museum and the various urban venues of Sydney Living Museums, it struggles to attract visitors, particularly tourists, anecdotally many of whom are unaware of its existence; in 2013-2014 only 11% of its surveyed visitors identified as being from overseas. The statistics are even more grim for the Museum's western outreach, the Powerhouse Discovery Centre where zero overseas visitors are recorded and only a statistically insignificant 2% are from outside Sydney.

For some twenty-five years the museum has struggled to demonstrate a sense of institutional coherence in terms of what it does, what its collection is about, what its audience is and how it communicates its mission and purpose. It is not unique in having to address the meta-question of what museums mean in an increasingly digitised age. Are they about education or entertainment; what are their audiences; do physical collections really matter; and are they a public resource available to all or a source of revenue and profit? In announcing the move Baird argued that the museum's relocation would ensure that it remained 'the interactive and vibrant place enjoyed by children and families'. It seems that the NSW government has formed a view that MAAS is pre-eminently a place of entertainment with a primary audience that is both domestic and young, rather than a place of education, knowledge and learning. This stance stands in marked contrast to the state government’s approach to the AGNSW, which not only remains in its Domain location but is currently contemplating yet another $450 million extension. Despite calls by western Sydney lobbyists for the AGNSW and the Australian Museum to follow MAAS west to the demographic centre of Sydney these have been rejected by the state government.
Screenshot of MAAS's webpage in April 2015 with a photograph of the repainted and rebranded Powerhouse Museum building. 
In July 2013 the MAAS trustees moved to address the museum's seemingly intractable systemic difficulties by appointing a new director and management team. The director, Rose Hiscock, has a background in strategic marketing and this seems to have informed many of her decisions including the somewhat prescient one of rebranding the museum by reverting to its official title and downgrading the Powerhouse Museum brand to venue status. Somewhat ingenuously declaring her overarching vision for the institution 'to be the world's leading museum of science and design' she asserted this could be realised through themes such as '"curiosity" for science and "creativity" for applied art', a – perhaps unwitting – reiteration of the generic themes of design and creativity that had informed the Powerhouse Museum's first exhibitions. As Hiscock recognises, the Powerhouse Museum is now located in 'a dynamic and rapidly changing educational and cultural precinct', making it possible for the museum to 'more effectively engage with the business, entertainment and residential life of these new communities.' Evidently this recognition of the museum's changing locale has not been sufficient to sway the NSW government from its purpose. Moreover, despite Hiscock's enthusiastic spin, fundamental problems remain: the collection is far from 'world class' and its acquisition budget is risible; a radically reduced expert staff has impacted on its ability to deliver the sort of exhibition and research programmes commonly associated with world-class museums; and the museum's political environment is, once again, distinctly uncertain.

Museums – certainly museums of art, design and technology – are urban phenomena. To function effectively they require the synergies only found in urban environments: a ready flow of visitors to attend exhibitions and freely access the collections and their attendant resources; good transport links; informed, committed and focussed staff; effective direction; and a commitment from all stakeholders involved in their governance. Setting aside the logistical nightmare involved in relocating a collection of some half a million objects, this proposed move will not resolve the dilemmas the museum currently faces, to the contrary. Relocating a museum developed in an urban context over 136 years to the cultural periphery of the Sydney metropolis, where transport links are limited and visitors are few, and unlikely to increase even with a relocated MAAS, would seem to be antithetical to ensuring its successful future. While Parramatta may be closer to the demographical centre of Sydney, it has neither the infrastructure nor the mass of population and potential connectivity required to support a cultural institution of the museum’s national and international significance. Neo-liberal governments, espousing the language of the corporate sector, are fond of identifying opportunities and this proposal would seem to embrace another corporate stratagem: risk. This proposed move may well turn out to be an, inadequately assessed, risk too far.

Thanks to John Wade for his comments and suggestions on a draft of this post. All opinions and errors are mine.