History of the Powerhouse Museum

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The Powerhouse Museum's origins date to 1879, when the Sydney International Exhibition was held in the Garden Palace, a purpose-built exhibition building located in the grounds of the Royal Botanic Gardens. At the conclusion of the Exhibition the Australian Museum (Sydney's museum of natural history) appointed a committee to select the best exhibits, with the intention of exhibiting them permanently in a new museum to be sited within the Garden Palace. The new museum was to be called The Technological, Industrial and Sanitary Museum of New South Wales, and its purpose was to exhibit the latest industrial, construction and design innovations, with the intention of showing how improvements in the living standards and health of the population might be brought about.

Unfortunately, in September 1882 before the new museum could be opened a fire completely destroyed the Garden Palace, leaving the museum's first curator, Joseph Henry Maiden with a collection consisting of only the most durable artefacts including a Ceylonese statue of an elephant carved in graphite that had miraculously survived the blaze despite a 5-storey plunge.

Undaunted, Maiden commenced rebuilding the collection, but for the subsequent decade the new museum found itself housed in a large tin shed in the Domain — a facility it shared with the Sydney Hospital morgue. The ever-present stench of decaying corpses was not the best advertisement for an institution dedicated to the promotion of sanitation, and eventually, after intense lobbying the museum was relocated to a three-storey building in Harris Street, Ultimo, and simultaneously given a new name — the Technological Museum.

The new location placed the museum adjacent to the Sydney Technical College, and as such it was intended to provide material inspiration to the students. As time passed, its name was changed to The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences and it also established branches in some of New South Wales' main industrial and mining centres, including Broken Hill, Albury, Newcastle and Maitland. It also quickly outgrew the main Harris Street site and by 1978 the situation had become dire, with many exhibits literally stuffed into its attic, and left unexhibited for decades.

On August 23 of that year, New South Wales Premier Neville Wran announced that the decrepit Ultimo Power Station, several hundred metres north of the Harris Street site had been earmarked as the museum's new permanent home. The Museum spent an interim period exhibiting as the Powerhouse Museum - Stage One in the nearby tram sheds before re-opening as the Powerhouse Museum at the new site on March 10, 1988. The main museum building contains five levels, three courtyards and a cafeteria, as well as some offices. Workshops, library, storage and additional office space is located in the annexed tram sheds (still known in-house as "Stage One") - however the size and continually expanding nature of the museum's collection means that offsite storage facilities are also maintained.

Following its closure as a working observatory in 1982, Sydney Observatory was incorporated into the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, as the museum was still formally known, though from 1988 this name was no longer used in marketing materials in favour of the Powerhouse Museum brand.

In 2016, a proposal to move the Powerhouse Museum from inner Sydney Ultimo to the western Sydney district of Parramatta proved controversial[1] and an announcement from the NSW government in April 2017 suggested that the Powerhouse Museum may stay in its current location.[2]


  1. ^ Taylor, Andrew (19 February 2016). "Culture wars: Powerhouse debate pits east against west". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 20 February 2016. 
  2. ^ Robertson, James (19 April 2017). "Government hints Powerhouse Museum may stay at Ultimo site". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 19 April 2017. 

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