The Powerhouse Museum leaks onto valuable art collection. Photo: John Moyle

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By Kylie Winkworth

If the Powerhouse collection had a voice it would be sending out SOS distress signals. One of Australia’s most significant museum collections, including treasures of international significance, is under existential threat.

The recent news of a flood in the textile store is just the latest assault on the collection. It might not sound like big deal in a sea of peril facing the Powerhouse from the Berejiklian government. It started with a leak in a pipe in the conservation lab. Conservators noticed water pooling on the floor and reported the leak to the facilities manager. A request for a plumber was logged. Two days later the pipe burst overnight. Water flowed freely into the concrete slab and then through into the textile store below. More than twenty objects were soaked, including costumes designed by Jenny Kee and Linda Jackson, a wedding dress, and an Aboriginal weaving. Conservators worked quickly to assess and dry the items. It will be weeks of work for the conservators. It is not known if any of the donors of the objects were notified.  No objects were ‘lost’ said the museum. But water marks on textiles can be impossible to fix. A flood in the textile store, soaking into the concrete slab, carries a high risk of mould which can be difficult to eradicate.

A museum spokesperson said it acted immediately when notified of the leak. What does immediately mean when there is a leaking pipe above the museum’s collection store? Getting it fixed that day, the next day, or the day after? In this case fixing the leak ‘immediately’ took three days, and the pipe was only fixed after the flood in the textile store was detected.

The Public Service Association (PSA) has sounded the alarm on the loss of expert staff at every level of the museum’s operations, including the trade staff who knew the museum buildings and infrastructure inside out.  Now the museum uses contractors, and employs managers to manage contracts. The museum’s buildings and exhibits are not being maintained, feeding the government’s narrative that the Powerhouse is too decrepit and must be closed. This is absurd. In the government’s rationale for demolishing the museum, we would all be selling our houses because the taps leak and the gutters need cleaning. The Powerhouse just needs proper maintenance by skilled people, like any high traffic public building.

Last year MAAS posted a $10m deficit. Its management team is relatively new and has limited experience working with a major museum collection. Most of the senior management team have come from art galleries.  The lack of deep museum experience in key positions matters in all kinds of ways, from collection development, exhibitions and community engagement, not to mention planning the risky move of the collection and the complete neglect of the museum’s major donors.

This does not bode well for the New Museum Western Sydney project, which is on the nose in the museum industry, here and overseas. This year the museum readvertised the head of conservation position, removing the requirement for the person to be an experienced conservator. The senior project co-ordinator, who will be in charge of evicting the museum’s priceless collections from Ultimo, does not need to have any collection or museum experience, it is only desirable. And the soon to be appointed new CEO also does not need to have actual museum experience, only an ‘understanding’ of museum collections and exhibitions. Such is the disdain for museum expertise it would not be a surprise if the government appoints a contemporary arts person as the new CEO. They have been among the government’s biggest spruikers for the demolition and ‘move’ of the Powerhouse.

To top it off, there is no one on the museum’s Trust who has any experience in museums or collections. The Trustees and past directors have driven a vicious redundancy program which has seen the museum’s staff shrink by nearly half. There has been no succession planning to retain critical skills and expertise.

If a public company had four CEOs in just six years, a senior management team new to the company and the business, and a board with no industry experience, the shareholders would be revolting and the company would be in administration. You wouldn’t be thinking this is the time to give a broke and diminished organisation a complicated $1.5b capital project.  But instead of re-building the museum’s staff numbers and capacity, the government is cutting $13m from the museum’s budget next year.

Meanwhile, Treasurer Dominic Perrottet is sitting on a money pile like Uncle Scrooge, gloating over the state’s $3.8b surplus.  And the Premier is lavishing billions on stadiums and greyhound races. But when it comes to caring for the treasures of NSW, they are squeezing the museum till the pips squeal. That is the SOS we can hear. At this point the fate of a 135 year old museum hangs in the balance. The Powerhouse can and must be saved. Visit the Powerhouse this summer. Support the staff and volunteers. And put the Liberals last next March.