Powerhouse Museum

Powerhouse Museum
Powerhouse entry

The Powerhouse Museum is the major branch of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney, the other being the historic Sydney Observatory. Although often described as a science museum, the Powerhouse has a diverse collection encompassing all sorts of technology including Decorative arts, Science, Communication, Transport, Costume, Furniture, Media, Computer technology, Space technology and Steam engines.

It has existed in various guises for over 125 years, and is home to some 400,000 artifacts, many of which are displayed or housed at the site it has occupied since 1988, and for which it is named — a converted electric tram power station in the Inner West suburb of Ultimo, originally constructed in 1902. It is well known, and a popular Sydney tourist destination. It has a quarterly magazine called Powerline sent free to members and available at the museum.



Eastern side of Powerhouse

The Powerhouse Museum has its origins in the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879. Some exhibits from this event were kept to constitute the original collection of the new Technological, Industrial and Sanitary Museum of New South Wales. The museum was intended to be housed in the exhibition buildings known as the Garden Palace, which were destroyed by a fire in September 1882. The museum subsequently moved to share premises with the morgue of Sydney Hospital. The museum relocated to new, purpose-built premises in Harris Street as the Technological Museum in August 1893. It incorporated the Sydney Observatory in 1982. The museum moved to its present location (the old Ultimo Powerhouse at 500 Harris Street) in March 1988, and took its present name (The Powerhouse Museum) from this new location.

Key attractions

The Powerhouse Museum houses a number of unique exhibits including the oldest operational rotative steam engine in the world. Dating from 1785, it is one of only a handful remaining that was built by Boulton and Watt and was acquired from Whitbread's London Brewery in 1888.[1] This engine was named a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1986.[2]

Another important exhibit is Locomotive No. 1, the first steam locomotive to operate in New South Wales, built by Robert Stephenson in 1854.[1]

The most popular exhibit is arguably "The Strasburg Clock Model", built in 1887 by a 25-year old Sydney watchmaker named Richard Smith. It is a working model of the famous Strasbourg astronomical clock in Strasbourg Cathedral. Smith had never actually seen the original when he built it but worked from a pamphlet which described its timekeeping and astronomical functions.[3]


The museum hosts a number of permanent exhibitions including:

Cyberworlds: computers and connections

This exhibition is about computers and connections through them, and looks at the very first computing machines to the latest designs at the time of launch. [4]


This exhibition looks at space and man's discoveries relating to it. It includes a life size model space-shuttle cockpit. It has a feature on Australian satellites and joins the Transport exhibit through an underground temporary exhibit walkway and two side entrances. [5]

The steam revolution

This exhibition is remarkable in that nearly all of the engines on display are fully operational and are regularly demonstrated working on steam power. Together with the Boulton and Watt engine, and the Museum's locomotives, steam truck and traction engines, they are a unique working collection tracing the development of steam power from the 1770s to the 1930s. Engines on display include an 1830s Maudslay engine, a Ransom and Jeffries agricultural engine and the Broken Hill Fire Brigade's horse drawn pump-engine. The museum owns a collection of mechanical musical instruments, of which the fairground barrel organ is located in the steam exhibition, where it is powered by a small fairground engine. [6]


This science exhibition is very popular with children because of the many interactive displays demonstrating aspects of magnetism, light, electricity, motion and the senses. These include a machine that explains how chocolate is made and lets one taste four 'stages' of chocolate. There is a full-sized model of the front of a firetruck that measures the pedal-power used to sound its horn and lights, and a hand-powered model railway using a magnetic system to provide electric current to the track. One of the most popular features is a Plasma ball that shows the electric current through the glowing gas inside it, and changes when touched. [7]


3830 at the Hunter Valley Steamfest.

This exhibition looks at transport through the ages, from horse drawn carts through steam engines, cars and planes to the latest hybrid technology. On display is Steam Locomotive No. 1243, which served for 87 years, the longest of any locomotive in Australia. It stands beside a mock-up of a railway platform, on the other side of which is the Governor of New South Wales's railway carriage, of the 1880s. Also in this exhibition is the original Central Railway Station destination board, relocated to the museum in the 1980s when the station was refurbished. In addition, the Powerhouse Museum leases two locomotives to 3801 Limited and the NSW Rail Transport Museum. The two locomotives are 3830, restored to operational order in 1997 and 3265, restored in 2009 after 40 years off the rails. Sydney's last Hansom Cab was donated to the Museum by its driver, who left it at the gates of the Harris Street building. There is also a horse-drawn bus and collection of motorbikes. Suspended aeroplanes, which can be better viewed from balconies, include the Catalina that Sir Patrick Gordon Taylor flew on the first flight from Australia to South America and in which he brought home 29 soldiers from New Guinea in 1945. There is also a Queenair Scout, the first Flying Doctor Service plane. Among the cars is a 1913 Sheffield Simplex, one of only 8 in the world. A four minute film shows old footage of public transport.[8]

The PHM also has Sydney trams C11 (1898), O805 (1909), R1738 (1938. 1st of its type), steam tram motor 28A, hearse car 27s and Manly horse car 292.

EcoLogic: Creating a sustainable future

This exhibition focuses on the challenges facing the environment, human impact, and ways and technologies to stop this effect. There is a house setup called Ecohouse where people toggle light variables to see the outcome as well as other energy use simulators and a 'ecological footprint' game. The exhibition includes a section of a tree with a time line marked on its rings, dating back to the 17th century. [9]

Blockbuster exhibitions

Since 1988 the Powerhouse has hosted a number of blockbuster exhibitions. Among the most popular of these were those based on popular cinema franchises such as Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings,[10] and the Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination exhibition, showing models, props and costumes from all six Star Wars films, together with recent advances in technology that are turning fantasy into reality.

Other blockbusters have been Arts orientated and have included the Faberge exhibition, the Treasures of Palestine exhibition, the "Strictly Mardi Gras" exhibition, the Christian Dior exhibition, the Audrey Hepburn exhibition, Kylie: an exhibition - a tribute to Kylie Minogue and her contribution to music, stage and screen, featuring many of her costumes. An exhibition about Diana, Princess of Wales, called Diana: a celebration included items from the collection at her ancestral home, Althorp, including her wedding gown, family jewellery and movies of Diana as a child.

There have also been various exhibitions paying tribute to Australian popular culture. Some of these have included On the box: great moments in Australian television 1956-2006, paying tribute to 50 years of Australian television and The 80s are back, which looks back on life in Australia in the 1980s.

A Harry Potter The Exhibition is set to begin on November 19, 2011.

Powerhouse Discovery Centre

Ninety five percent of the Powerhouse Museum's collection is maintained in storage at any one time. Sixty percent of this was moved from late 2004 to a new three hectare site in the northwestern Sydney suburb of Castle Hill. Built at a cost of AUD $12 million, this facility consists of seven huge sheds, including one the size of an aircraft hangar, within which are housed such recently-rediscovered artifacts as a section of the mast of HMS Victory, Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, and the spare wheel from Bluebird, the car Donald Campbell drove to break the world land speed record on Lake Eyre in the 1960s. The Powerhouse Discovery Centre at Castle Hill opened to the general public on 10 March 2006.

Online collections


  • "Treasure Trove: 125 Years of the Powerhouse Museum" by Steve Meacham, Sydney Morning Herald (Spectrum), 18–19 September 2004, pp 1–4
  • Davison, Graeme; Webber, Kimberley (2005). Yesterday's Tomorrows. Powerhouse Publishing. ISBN 0868409855. 

External links

Coordinates: 33°52′43″S 151°11′58″E / 33.87861°S 151.19944°E / -33.87861; 151.19944

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