A big building is not what makes a great museum

I keep saying I won’t continually comment on the disastrous decision to move the Powerhouse – and I stand by all my earlier criticisms of the idea (for example here and here). However there’s one part of the announcement, in the last couple of days, that the Government intends to plough ahead with this poorly reasoned, inadequately explained, stupidity that I can’t walk past: It’s the comparison to the Smithsonian or and the London Science Museum.

It will be bigger and better than anything NSW has ever seen and will rival global cultural icons such as the London Science Museum and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

Both the Smithsonian and the London Science Museum are exemplars, they are a sheer joy to visit. What makes them so? Well let’s start with the bleeding obvious – both museums sit in the heart of the cities they grace. No one suggests moving the Smithsonian to Baltimore because more people live there. No one talks of moving the Science Museum to Islington. Both museums sit proudly in the centre of their cities – acknowledging that they are a major tourist destination.

They are  major tourist destinations because they are good at what they do. They have a clear focus, backed by a will and money. The poor Powerhouse, or MAAS, or whatever, has for the last decade or so been little more than a poorly funded political football. Moving it to Parramatta is not going to change that – it’ll simply put it into a new big building which will provide the ability to showcase international travelling exhibitions created by, yes, the Smithsonian and the Science Museum! (Always assuming that they don’t just continue the usual trend of using the space for anything that will make money regardless of a tenuous connection with science.)

A modern museum lives or dies by the creativity of its staff and volunteers. To whatever extent the museum has a cool collection, it is only a starting point. I have seen museums do wonderful things with very little, and museums squander icons by burying them in boredom. A shiny new building is not going to change things for the Powerhouse, even assuming they successfully transfer their unique and iconic items; what they need is the focus and the money to make them more than a compulsory school trip destination. There is nothing in the idea of moving the Museum to Parramatta that suggest that will be the case.

This decision continues to stink of being a cash-grab for land value, over-laid with a veneer of rhetoric about cultural institutions to mask the fact that the people making the decisions simply do not actually care about the institution and what it represents. And before you way something along the lines of the West needing a cultural institution, explain to me why you don’t want to move the Opera, or one of the central sports stadiums for that matter.

So Premier, if you want to make a comparison between the Powerhouse and world-class institution in other countries – try to find another first-World country that has stuck its science museum on the outer fringes of the city – I’ve visited the science museums in the capitals of USA, Germany, UK, Japan, China, Canada, Rome and they are all central – regardless of the population weight. Parramatta may well be the “geographic heart of Sydney” but if you truly believed that you’d be looking at moving a whole range of cultural institutions out there. Then again maybe the next step will be to sell off the Opera House – I’m sure it’d make a great casino site.

This remains a devastatingly bad decision and simplistic, post-truth comparisons to real World-class institutions won’t change that fact.

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