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What Is the Powerhouse Museum?

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  • Written By: C. K. Lanz
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 21 November 2016
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The Powerhouse Museum, located in Sydney, Australia, houses a diverse collection of objects related to science and design. It is part of the Sydney Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences with the Sydney Observatory. Collection areas range from steam engines to furniture, postage stamps to clothing. This public museum has taken several forms since its founding in 1879, though its primary purpose has always been to feature ideas and technologies that reflect human ingenuity in all its forms. The Powerhouse Museum has been in the Ultimo power station on Harris Street since March 1988 and took its name from the site.

The idea for a museum dedicated to invention, technology, and industry was first hatched in 1879 after Australia’s first international exhibition. A fire destroyed most of these original displays and objects, but those that survived were given a temporary home in an agricultural hall. The collection continued to grow and was eventually moved to the Ultimo power station. In order to accommodate the museum collection, architect Lionel Glendenning redesigned Ultimo, adding a new building, and it was opened in 1988. The Powerhouse Museum collection includes more than 500,000 items, but only around 3 percent can be displayed at any given time.

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Similar to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., the Powerhouse Museum’s collection is difficult to categorize or describe in general terms. Glassware, photography, and jewelry are mixed with robot dogs, medicines, and clocks. Visitors can peruse a selection of vintage wool or examine objects from the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. The Joseph Box collection features shoes from around the world, while swimwear styles are the highlight of the Speedo collection. There is something for nearly every interest and taste at the Powerhouse Museum, and many of the exhibits are interactive.

This museum hosts special exhibitions throughout the year. Actress Audrey Hepburn’s clothing was featured in one exhibition. Other past exhibitions focused on brewing, the circus in Australia, and contemporary Italian silver. Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook, singer Kylie Minogue’s outfits, and Central Asian textiles have also been on display. The special exhibitions are as diverse as the museum’s permanent collection.

In an effort to highlight and generate interest in its various niche collections, the Powerhouse Museum hosts several different specialized research centers. Lace researchers and enthusiasts can visit the Lace Study Centre to examine the museum’s collection of laces from around the world, some made as early as the 1500s. Clothing prior to 1945 is the focus of the Australian Dress Registrar project. The museum is also the depository for Hedda Morrison’s photography as well as a research library established to assist staff as well as outside researchers.

Education and outreach are important aspects of the Powerhouse Museum mission. The museum offers activities specifically aimed at children, including crafts and interactive exhibitions featuring popular children’s entertainers and characters. Lesson plans and activities for teachers are also available, while young adults interested in engineering and robotics can participate in programs that aim to improve their understanding of these fields. The museum also features a studio and workspace for video editors and other multimedia artists. Museum curators and other experts give lectures on a weekly basis. This museum welcomes school and tour groups. There are several informal cafes inside, and admission is free for members.

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