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17 October 2008

Powerhouse Museum


KIMBERLEY WEBBER: The museum's over 125 years old. It was founded in 1880. And it's actually moved around Sydney quite a bit. It started out in Sydney's Domain, then moved down the road to Harris Street and then in 1988, opened here in what was a power station built to power the trams of Sydney in 1899. And after the trams were taken out, it became derelict and became the museum in 1988. So we're really standing in what was once a power station. And hence the name Sydney's Powerhouse.

We were founded as the Technological, Industrial and Sanitary Museum. And we've always had an interest in the history of technology and in transport. But we're also interested in Australian history and decorative arts and design. So we really cover quite a wide gamut of collections. We have about 300,000 objects in the collection. But as you can imagine, even in an enormous space like this, we still can't display them all. Only about 3% of the collection is on display.

The largest object we've got is undoubtedly the Catalina, which is an enormous aeroplane which was largely used in transporting goods before and during the Second World War. Probably our most precious object, and most surprising, in a way, is the Boulton & Watt rotative steam engine. This is one of only a number, a very small number, surviving in the world today. It was made by Boulton & Watt in their workshop in the 18th century and acquired by the museum in the 1880s and shipped to Australia in what was quite a remarkable enterprise at the time. Because it is also rather enormous.

The heaviest object would be 3830, which is a locomotive that's been restored to working order. And we use it for special events. It carries passengers on special trips. And every now and then, we have it steaming in our courtyard. And it is indeed a massive steam engine. We need a large space, and indeed that's why a power station is perfect, because it has very large volumes owing to the fact it once had enormous turbines and coalers and all those sorts of things going. So we've got about 20,000 square metres of exhibition space.

And, as our visitors would know, walking around it, every bit is pretty well full of transport objects, decorative arts objects, objects that tell us about Australian history, history of shopping - all sorts of things. The museum has always prided itself on relating, telling the stories in a way that's very accessible. So interactivity - being able to look at films, being able to use, these days, computer programs to explore understanding of how things like bridges might be built, of television and how that works, is very much part of our display ethic.

And we've also got special exhibitions for little ones. A really gorgeous exhibition on music for little children. So interactivity is really important and one of the pleasures of visiting the museum. These days, of course, using resources wisely is very important.

And we've got a very good exhibition called EcoLogic, which is about the environment. It's about how you, case studies in successful examples of water conservation, land use, agriculture. It's about, really, how Australia can be more successful in establishing sustainable practices across a wide range of industries.

And in Australian History, we have a terrific exhibition based around a local store from Binalong, which is just outside Geelong. A really lovely collection. This shop operated in the 19th century by a Chinese-Australian family. And it closed in 1917 and really nothing much happened to it. And that gives you a really lovely sense of walking back in time into a rural store. Visitors to the museum can see a range of material from highly specialised things, like the Lace Study gallery, to big transport halls, like we're standing in now, with wonderful large trains and planes and automobiles. So there's really something here for every member of the family, from little tiny ones up to grandparents, who can enjoy seeing objects they recall from their own childhoods and learning more about their role in Australian history.