musée du quai Branly, Paris

Here’s a solution to the controversial decision to move the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta that means Sydneysiders can have their cake and eat it too.

You are a French tourist visiting Sydney on your way to an island-hopping holiday in the Pacific. Like your explorer forebears, you are curious to learn more about the spectacular and unusual first cultures in Australia and the Pacific.  

Where do you go? Why, the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris, of course.

The prominence given to material culture conveys a lot about a nation. 

After leaving Sydney our hypothetical French tourist might fly to Noumea and visit the fancy Tjibaou Centre to learn more about local Kanak history and culture, part of the human diaspora across the Pacific.

Near the ocean’s eastern shores, Santiago de Chile hosts the splendid Pre-Columbian museum, chockers full of astounding items that demonstrate the sophistication, extent – and bloodthirstiness – of pre-Spanish civilisation across Central and South America.

The collected trophies of returning diplomat/collectors now stock the MEG, Geneva’s ethnographic museum. Entered though a fancy new building set on a small plaza, its lovely underground galleries regularly throng with school kids mingling with foreign tourists.

The archaeological and cultural artefacts on display in the History Museum of Armenia evoke the continuous cultural history and development in the Caucuses region from Neolithic times. As a defining feature of Yerevan’s Republic Square, the museum powerfully conveys intense contemporary pride in this heritage. 

Sadly, these splendid examples are counter-posed by a depressingly extensive and infamous history of hostility to cultural heritage.

At one extreme, outright destruction generates global outrage and is now regarded as a form of genocide; recall the Taliban’s notorious demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. 

In that vein, the ethnic hatreds and human toll of conflicts in the former Yugoslavia were amplified by the destruction of the beautiful Stari Most in Mostar. 

The wounds inflicted on all humanity from the murderous rage of ISIS and its affiliates were intensified by the destruction of countless ancient artefacts in Syria, Iraq and Africa, including priceless Islamic manuscripts in Timbuktu.  

Outright theft is another form of cultural violence. Despite Herman Goering’s notorious disdain – “when I hear the word culture I reach for my revolver” – his Nazi collaborators saw in it a shortcut to wealth and legitimacy, systematically looting priceless paintings, sculptures and jewellery from their victims across Europe.  

The appropriation of cultural objects by colonial powers still remains a sore point with many once subjugated nations. The British Museum still resists calls from Greece to return the Elgin Marbles.

As Australians, we are more knockabout than zealous; cultural indifference is more our thing. But apathy shares with destruction an end point in cultural amnesia.

Consider how we treat our unique cultural heritage.

The Australian Museum in Sydney boasts “…one of the largest collection in the world of First Nations cultures, specifically from Pacific and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”, yet these are displayed in only one gallery. Most are held in storage.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales also collects oceanic art and earlier this year hosted the Oceanic Art Society Forum, yet most of its collection is also in storage.

To illustrate further where our values lie we need only compare two decisions in the lead-up to the recent state election. 

The first is the commitment to rebuild or significantly modify two relatively new sporting stadiums at a net cost to the taxpayer approaching $1billion. The second is the decision to relocate most of the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta. 

The likely cost is about the same but the latter would be recouped by the sale of vacated land, at little net cost to taxpayers. A large proportion of these funds would be expended to meet eye-watering moving costs, matching the cost with little net benefit to taxpayers.

Some increase in the cultural offering is proposed, such as a new planetarium. The cultural enrichment of Parramatta is also held out as a benefit, but it sounds faintly like an afterthought drawn from other narratives of Sydney’s urban development. 

The relocation intends to retain at Ultimo “a connected creative industries hub”, which sounds suspiciously like hat-doffing recognition of the benefits that currently flow from the synergistic co-location of the Powerhouse, the nearby University of Technology Sydney and the ABC. 

In the jargon loved by urban scholars, these institutions currently define a valuable “knowledge precinct”. The growth of knowledge precincts is thought to be a significant feature of successful and developing knowledge economies, such as Sydney’s. Why then would one seriously extract one of these components leaving only a rump-Powerhouse? 

It’s unclear but it would be utterly churlish to suggest it would have anything to do with the release of more land near Darling Harbour for private redevelopment. 

Indeed, if land recovery for higher and better uses is a motivation then a much greater net yield might be achieved by the release of land in the very heart of Sydney’s CBD by lowering the Western Distributor below grade between the Sydney Harbour Bridge on ramps and Darling Harbour, as explored previously. 

Parramatta is proposed to be the centre of a metropolis of three cities, a model somewhat controversially first proposed by the Greater Sydney Commission. Nevertheless, the proposition is gathering policy support. 

Inherent in the idea is that two of the proposed centres – Parramatta and the “Aerotropolis” – are yet to be confirmed as being definite cities physically and in public imagination. Therefore, the business of city-making is now a central and urgent task.  

Appositely, a recent article from The Fifth Estate reflected on the many needs to be meet when making great cities. Prominent among them is the importance of providing good cultural institutions and engaging “…more with Indigenous people to try and reflect local indigenous heritage and needs in the urban environment”.

Controversy surrounding the proposed Powerhouse Museum relocation and the stadiums rebuild straddled the last state election. Now that the election is over, how might the city-making components championed by The Fifth Estate square with the Powerhouse and stadiums decisions? 

Not well, but the government is unlikely to revisit these decisions willingly. Pressure to do so is typically met by “we have a mandate”, often followed by the lemming-like idiocy of “a decision has been made”.  

Fortunately, lack of strategic wit is a condition that can be reversed.

An upper house committee has vowed to re-examine the Powerhouse decision and explore alternative proposals. Before the election, the committee recommended that “…the Powerhouse Museum be given a cash injection and restored to its former glory, while Parramatta would receive funding for its own, separate ”world-class” institution.”

What a good idea.

Hey … why not leave the Powerhouse where it is, save bucket loads on the costs of moving the collections, sell a smaller amount of the spare Darling Harbour land, use the proceeds to build a brand new “world class” venue on the recently purchased Parramatta River site, and stock it with “…one of the largest collection in the world of First Nations cultures, specifically from Pacific and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples” held by the Australian Museum.

That way, we accelerate the development of Parramatta as Sydney’s central city with its own unique cultural offers, as proposed by the Greater Sydney Commission, we double the number of world class new museums, we reduce the cost of establishing both, and we develop a whole new tourist attraction simply by displaying what we already possess.

We could have the Quay Parramatta Museum of Australian and Pacific Indigenous Cultures – MAPIC – and the Powerhouse.

The stadiums decision clearly demonstrated that the government has plenty of money to splash around. 

Remember the sloganeering; we can have it all.

Mike Brown has worked in NSW local and state government in planning, urban design, and strategic roles for 15 years. He is also a graduate of the Masters of Urban Policy and Strategy program at the University of NSW.

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  1. I have been trying to get a Museum of the Pacific based on the AM collections for more than twenty years but I don’t think a flood prone site in Parramatta is the place for it. While the western Sydney community has never been properly consulted about what sort of Museum they actually want, there seems to be a consensus that a museum of migration and the history of the area is preferred. They certainly do not want a reduced version of the Powerhouse which is what they will get under the government scheme even if a planetarium ( ha, ha) is attached.

  2. The Melboune Museum also has an equally great collection of indiginous items. These are mainly stacked away in storage. Melbourne and Sydney could easily have a friendly competition to show who has the most and best on display. Wouldn’t that be Lovely

  3. What a terrific suggestion. Great cities have multiple and diverse museums and galleries. Think Paris, Berlin, London, New York, Tokyo … just about anywhere else, other than in Australia. Inferior cities, by contrast, have only multiple sports stadiums. It’s embarrassing that the current NSW government thinks that we can have only a single “Powerhouse Museum”, either in Sydney or in Parramatta. Embarrassing, too, that their concept of investment in museum culture is simply the payment of a huge removalist’s bill. Cultural leadership in the current NSW government is as empty as its multiple sports stadiums generally are.

  4. Strongly support the logic.
    I worked at PHM 26 years and Australian Museum 7 years as both building engineering maintenance manager and major projects manager.
    I resigned 4 years ago yet have strong knowledge of both sites and stronger emotional attatchments.
    Good luck with your ideas which mirror my views.
    Brian James

  5. ‘Money-makers are tiresome company, as they have no standard but cash value.’ – Plato, The Republic, around 380BC

    nice to read some sensible suggestions instead of spending $5B to give a public asset to a private developer to build a 60 storey block of units

    a voice of reason – let’s hope the balance of power in the latest NSW election can encourage the neoliberal philistines that actually respecting and retaining public assets for future generations might actually be good for everyone.