During the late 1970s I was living in England researching a doctorate. I also enjoyed a lot of museums including during a visit to Paris the Centre Pompidou, which had only been open for a year or so. I remember being totally blown away by it, astonished by this new take on the idea of a museum, and especially the way it made you look at art afresh, and how it had become a social centre, encompassing activities a long way from artistic contemplation.
It didn’t occur to me that anything like the Pompidou would be possible in Australia. Little did I know that another Australian traveller had also been impressed. It’s urban legend that recently elected NSW premier Neville Wran said to his wife Jill after a visit to the Pompidou: ‘I want one of those’. The Powerhouse is Neville’s Pompidou.
Of course the road from Paris to Powerhouse wasn’t straight forward. The plethora of eulogies following Neville Wran’s recent passing mostly listed the Powerhouse and Darling Harbour among the numerous achievements of the Wran premiership. But few of them recaptured the background to Wran’s 1976 election: If you lived in Sydney it was a profitable time to be a crook, a copper or a politician, the most obvious evidence being the several illegal casinos operating around the city well-known to everyone except, apparently, the police. A home-delivered bottle of wine would not have created any sort of fuss.
At the same time the city was in decline – retail, nightlife and recreation were disappearing from the CBD in favour of speculative office developments. By the early eighties a series of undeveloped demolition sites blighted the cityscape while around the city lay acres of ruined or redundant real estate including Haymarket and Darling Harbour.
These precincts became part of Wran’s strategies to address the issues of police corruption and urban blight. In 1977 Wran bullied a reluctant Police Commissioner into closing the casinos but the issue refused to die and Wran decided that a legal casino was the only solution, removing a major excuse for police corruption. It’s widely forgotten that the Darling Harbour development was to be financed by a casino built on the city side of Cockle Bay.
When Wran became premier the only new structures at Darling Harbour were uncompleted elevated freeways, designed to cut a swathe through Ultimo, Glebe, Annandale and other inner suburbs, but stymied by resident opposition. Wran cancelled the freeway plans and passed Australia’s first significant urban heritage conservation laws. The freeway cancellation also meant that the recently vacated produce markets at Haymarket were no longer under threat of demolition and Wran’s first major cultural building was Sydney Entertainment Centre, constructed in the Haymarket from 1978.
The freeway ban cemented the loyalty of the new educated middle class, busily repopulating the inner suburbs. So did Wran’s investment in cultural infrastructure at Darling Harbour and elsewhere. Commissioned during the 1950s Sydney Opera House was the only significant cultural venue built in Sydney for decades. In contrast the Powerhouse was the first component of a boom in museum building that ran through the 90s and beyond including not only new buildings but new institutions, such as the Historic Houses Trust, the MCA and Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art.
In the 1980s museums were something of a marginal presence in Australia and the museum profession was small. The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences went from a staff of a few dozen to a few hundred within a couple of years. I was part of that vast influx, most of whom had no background in museums. There were academics, artists, engineers, designers, all sorts of people. We were barely tolerated by some of the museum old guard and the tension between old and new museum ideologies exists to this day. If the Powerhouse has never gained the popularity and respect that the Pompidou enjoys, the identity crisis unresolved at its inception is partly to blame.
On the other hand like the Pompidou the Powerhouse expanded the image and potential of museums. It increased their accessibility and legibility, the breadth of collections and exhibitions and the information available to visitors and others. Interpretive labels, supporting media such as audio-visual and interactive programs right up to having collection information on line – the Powerhouse was a leader in practices which are now mainstream and we should be proud of that. The PHM also had a big role in expanding the museum audience way beyond the ‘culturally active adults’ traditionally focused on. Today every museum has its kids programs, to mention only the most obvious manifestation of a change that the PHM helped to pioneer.
Had Neville Wran never visited the Pompidou none of this would have happened – maybe. I’m enjoying the myth nonetheless.
Charles Pickett, curator