Inside the Collection

Trial by Fire – the formation of the Powerhouse Museum’s collections from the ashes of the Garden Palace

Garden Palace Fire 1882, lithograph
Garden Palace Fire 1882, lithograph from Illustrated Sydney News Supplement, Powerhouse Museum Collection, P2239

The story of the creation of the Powerhouse museum starts with the project to host an international exhibition in the grounds of the Sydney Domain in 1879. Based on similar displays in London and Paris it drew from around the world all manner of objects relating to the industrial and applied arts.These were all to be housed in the ‘Garden Palace’ exhibition building, which was designed in a week and built in less than a year. It opened its doors on 17 September 1879 and closed them seven months later after over a million visitors had passed through its gates.

One of the offshoots of hosting the great exhibition was that it provided an impetus for setting up a new kind of museum in Sydney, one based on the principles of technological industrial and sanitary museums based on the South Kensington Museum, the Bethnal Green Museum, the Museum of Practical Geology, the Patent Museum and the Parkes Museum of Hygiene in London. In 1878 during the lead up to the exhibition the trustees of the Australian Museum asked the NSW Govt to look into the potential of establishing the Museum of Technology Industry and Sanitation in Sydney and as a result Professor Liversidge, Mr. E Condes and the Agent General were appointed to collect information from similar institutions across Europe.
Photograph of The South Nave 1879
The South Nave from the dome of the 1879 Sydney Exhibition ‘Garden Palace’ building, 91/1323-12
The proposed museum was to be a direct extension of the ‘1879 Exhibition’ in both its classification systems and its links to industry. It was also to be constructed to emphasise education and instruction though display as opposed to being a mere a showcase of manufacturer’s wares. In the above view of the south nave of the ‘Garden Palace’ building we can see how closely the displays followed the design of exhibitions and museums found in Europe. Many of the objects in these displays were brought at no small expense from around the globe and were undoubtedly a perfect fit for the new Sydney Museum collections. The trustees must have hoped the cost of returning them would provide an impetus to donate them to the new museum, or perhaps failing that allow them to be purchased for a small fee.
Liversidge’s final report was tabled in January 1880 and soon after a Museum Committee was appointed which included: Liversidge; Mr. Alfred Roberts; Robert Hunt and Mr. C. R. Buckland.  Unfortunately by the time it received its 1000 pounds to acquire objects many of the best specimens had already been moved to Melbourne to be rehoused in the ‘Melbourne International Exhibition’. As a result the money only allowed them to purchase a few of the poorer specimens and display cases for the museum, even so by October 1880 there were around 5000 specimens in three courts and the committee was asking for more money to purchase objects from the Melbourne Exhibition “remembering how much they had lost by not being able to buy at the commencement of the Sydney Exhibition.”
The scope of the new museum was remarkably broad and emphasised the relevance of current activities rather than the past, in fact after 130 years its mission seems remarkably fresh. The museum’s agenda as outlined in 1880 strove for: contemporary relevance, integration with community, partnerships with industry and government, practical outcomes for society, promotion of life-long learning, and sought to be firmly embedded within the educational sector.
In October 1880 the Sydney Morning Herald gave the following description of the scope of the new TechnologicalMuseum:
1 – Animal products & specimens to show methods in preparation and manufacture for clothing, textiles, pharmacy dying etc.
2 – Vegetable products from raw material through various stages of manufacture
3 – Waste products
4 – Foods animal and vegetable
5 – Economic entomology showing products and specimens both injurious and beneficial to humans
6 – Economic geological specimens including ore of metals, building materials and examples of their manufacture – some of these were to be built into the museum building itself.
7 – Educational apparatus, school fittings, maps, scientific instruments of greatest value to teachers.
8 – Sanitary and Hygienic appliances
9 – Mining engineering machinery
10 – Models drawings and descriptions of patents
11 – Agricultural Tools
12 – Ethnological specimens
13 – Historical furniture
14 – Photographs, plasters, electrotype representations of specimens not obtainable for collection
15 – Exhibition catalogues, trade journals, and descriptions of new processes
16 – Provide access to collections & instruction to regional museums & mechanics institutes
17 – A chemical lab installed at the museum
18 – Provide instruction to those who have left school
Unfortunately all of the Committee’s carefully constructed plans were about to be thrown into disarray. At about 5.45 on the morning of Friday 22 September, 1882, the nightwatchmen on duty, Kirchen and McKnight, entered the Garden Palace building and noticed smoke rising from beneath the statue of Queen Victoria. Within minutes the fire was so strong they were forced out of the building and within hours the whole building was levelled. The iron coating of the dome carried as far as Woolloomooloo, and many believed if it wasn’t for the fact that the wind was blowing in a westerly direction the houses along Macquarie Street would have been lost as well. As it was the heat from the fire cracked the windows of the houses.
Photograph of The North Nave 1879
The North Nave from the dome in the 1879 Sydney Exhibition ‘Garden Palace’ building, Powerhouse Museum, 91/1323-16
The fire was thought to have started at the base of the statue we can see above and which went down to the lower food court; ironically to the left of the statue was C. Voss & Son’s display of fire extinguishers. But we should not imagine that the objects in this photograph of the 1879 exhibition were consumed in the fire. By the time the fire broke out in 1882 most of the objects were long gone, sent off to the Melbourne International Exhibition. Instead the building was being used to store items from New South Wales Government departments and the burgeoning Technological Museum Collections. In this photograph we can see the Ceylon, Singapore and adjacent court (just to the left of the Queen Victoria statue) and it was here where most of the new technological museum collections were being held when the fire broke out.
Photograph of 'Garden Palace' building after the fire, 1882
‘Garden Palace’ building after the fire, 1882, Government Printing Office, Powerhouse Museum, 86/969
All that remained of the building after the fire were a few bricks, the pillars of the four main entrances, and the statues in the grounds nearby. The only object above the level of the main floor was a portion of the central fountain upon which the statue of the Queen stood. The loss to the government and people of New South Wales was enormous, mainly because portions of the old exhibition building were being used as storage for a variety of government offices.
Lost were plans, papers and statistical records from census papers which were the work of 30 people over 13 months and the AustralianMuseum’s collection of Aboriginal artefacts were also lost. All exhibits for the Juvenile exhibition were burnt up along with 300 pictures that were the property of the Art Society. The loss to Linnaean Society whose library and collections were housed in the building was estimated at 3000 pounds. One of the most contentious and talked about losses was the New South Wales Railway surveys which needed to be re-surveyed at great expense and delayed important extensions.
The loss to the Technological Museum was devastating. The fire had occurred approximately 8 weeks before the new Technological Museum was to open its doors to the public and everything, with the exception of a few badly twisted iron samples was destroyed. The cost of this loss was estimated to be between 30,000 – 50,000 pounds.
Even in the face of this devastation the museum’s curator, Joseph Maiden, set about rebuilding the collection. Immediately in the wake of the fire he sent out letters to contributors to the 1879 and 1880 exhibition’s asking for new items for the museum. The response was remarkably positive and just over a year later, on 15 December 1883, the Technological Museum, with 5000 objects, was opened to the public in the cramped space of the Agricultural building which had survived the previous year’s fire.
Photograph of interior Technological Museum 1980
Technological Museum, interior, Agricultural Building, Sydney, c.1890
In this photograph from the Museum’s archival collection we can see on display some of the museum’s earliest objects, many of which are still in the collection today. The domed object in the center of the picture is likely to be one of model furnaces purchased from German firm of Schroeder and Co. But as you can see the space available for the collection was very cramped and Maiden consistently lobbied for a newer and more expansive building to house the collections.
Photograph of Technological Museum 1895
Technological Museum, Harris Street, Ultimo, c.1895
Finally, in 1893, the museum moved into the new building on Harris Street, Ultimo, which you can see above. The museum remained here for the next 95 years until the collections were relocated into the newly named Powerhouse Museum, just down the road. But the old building is still part of UTS grounds and you can still see the inscription ‘Technological Museum’  on its front if you look carefully as you walk up Harris Street.
Geoff Barker, Curatorial, 2013
Baker, R. T., ‘Technological Museum’, in the Australian Technical Journal of Science and Art, Vol. 1, No. 2, 30 March, 1897
Commissioners of the Sydney International Exhibition, ‘Official Record of the Sydney International Exhibition1879’, Thomas Richards, Government Printer, Sydney 1881
Davison, G., Webber, K., Yesterday’s Tomorrows; the Powerhouse Museum and its Precursors 1880-2005, Powerhouse Publishing in association with the University of New South Wales Press, 2005
P., Proudfoot, R. Maguire, and R. Freestone (eds.), Colonial City Global City, Sydney’s International Exhibition 1879, Crossing Press, Sydney, 2000
Sydney Morning Herald, October 1880

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