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Powerhouse in peril

A power struggle between a concerned community and the Baird government has been mounting since February 26, when the government announced its plan to sell the popular museum for up to $200 million. The Powerhouse – the keystone venue of the 136-year-old Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences – would be redeveloped into apartments. A replacement museum would be built in Western Sydney.

Increasing funding for cultural facilities in western Sydney is certainly crucial. However, selling the Powerhouse is an ineffective and publicly unacceptable means of achieving this, say the residents, intellectuals and politicians behind the “Save the Powerhouse” campaign.

At a City of Sydney meeting on April 27, Councillor Linda Scott tabled a petition in support of the museum. She stands alongside many inner-city representatives who oppose the sale, including Member for Balmain, Jamie Parker, and Deputy Labor leader and MP for Sydney, Tanya Plibersek.

Parker believes that the Powerhouse “is not recyclable” and would encounter many setbacks if transplanted. To Plibersek, it is clear that “the state government is putting short-term profit ahead of long-term investment in community infrastructure”. She suggests that the current Powerhouse and a new western Sydney museum need not be mutually exclusive. Meanwhile, there is already a Powerhouse Discovery Centre at Castle Hill, undergoing a $33.6 million upgrade.

Selling the nationally significant Powerhouse to the highest bidder, rather than preserving its legacy for long-term public use, would worsen a disturbing trend in Sydney’s CBD. The casino-ridden Barangaroo development and the controversial sale of public housing at Miller’s Point are already perilous examples of lost public spaces. Is Sydney doomed to a disposable future? Activist and social commentator Eva Cox proposes that “We need more, not fewer, iconic public spaces in central Sydney that remind us – and our children – of our past and present ingenuity and encourage future possibilities!”

Indeed, balancing economic decisions with cultural, social and environmental priorities is essential for a vibrant city. Former City of Sydney Historian, Dr Shirley Fitzgerald, points out that we cannot “put a dollar value” on knowledge, education, entertainment or heritage. These benefits are true and enduring powerhouses for society – all generated by the Powerhouse Museum and its affiliates from the 19th century until today.

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