Powerhouse Museum, MAAS, Sydney - review by Rusty Compass
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Powerhouse Museum, MAAS, Sydney

| 09 Feb 2021
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Powerhouse Museum, MAAS, Sydney
500 Harris St, Ultimo
Free during 2021
09 Feb 2021

The Powerhouse Museum - or Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences - is Sydney's modest answer to London's V and A Museum. It's all about technology, science and design in an industrial setting. The old tram powerhouse, (hence the name), is enough reason for a visit. There are classic bits of Australian industrial history on display, as well as temporary exhibitions on design and technology.

Note: The information provided in this review was correct at time of publishing but may change. For final clarification please check with the relevant service

Old industrial spaces like the Powerhouse Museum have huge appeal. I could spend hours looking over old bits of industrial junk and heavy machinery, and the warehouses in which they operated. So I was very at home for a few hours at the Powerhouse.

The Powerhouse survived a brush with death in 2020.   There were plans to close it for relocation to Parramatta. The deal was always a bit of a mystery but property developer interests have been turning the wheels in Sydney for a very long time and that looks to have been the play here too.

The government changed its mind at the last minute and the Powerhouse looks set to live on in its current amazing setting. The Parramatta plan also holds (for now).

In some ways the place still feels a bit like it's on life-support but that's probably just COVID, the long-planned closure, and the way Sydney does museums these days.

Powerhouse Museum, Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Powerhouse Museum, Sydney
Powerhouse Museum, Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Powerhouse Museum, Sydney
Powerhouse Museum, Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Powerhouse Museum, Sydney

The old trains and steam engines were a highlight. They include the first steam train to operate in New South Wales from the 1850s.

The "What's in Store" exhibition, focused on the corner store and retail, was nicely done too - though I seem to recall this from a previous visit almost 2 decades ago. This mini-exhibition is worth keeping for lots of reasons - but I did wonder how much things have changed here since my last visit in the early 2000s.

Keep an eye out for special exhibitions.

The Powerhouse boasts one of Australia's most extensive collections of goodies - the vast bulk of it in storage. They're slowly but surely digitising the collection - a process that looks to have been aided by the planned closure. For a sense of the amazing stuff you don't see in the museum, check out some of the bits from the digitised collection here.

Like many Sydney museums, The Powerhouse could do with some fresh ideas and money. It feels a tad tired. And it doesn't even seem to be trying to be in the same league as other similar museums around the world. It does occupy a world class space though and it seems to have a world class collection too. Whether its money, or Sydney in 2021, I don't know. But I still enjoyed my visit.

The future of the Powerhouse remains a tad unclear. We are deeply opposed to plans to open a second Powerhouse in Parramatta. We love the Powerhouse where it is. We love Parramatta too - and we'd love to see Parramatta developing its own world class museums using its unique history.

To better understand our perspective on this, check out this video on the Female Factory in Parramatta - a place where we believe Sydney should locate three new museums; a Museum of Indigenous History and Culture, A Museum of Women in Australia, A Museum of Immigration - all of which tie in beautifully with Parramatta's unique stories.

Rusty Compass listings are always independent. We show you the places we think you should know about. That's it. We'll let you know whenever there's a commercial arrangement too.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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