Inside the Collection

Neons and museums

Photograph of William Street, Sydney about 1968
William Street, Sydney about 1968. Photo by David Mist, Powerhouse Museum collection. Gift of David Mist.

A few years back I was interviewed about the fate of Sydney’s neon advertising signs:

‘The great age of neon has passed,’ laments Charles Pickett, a curator of design and society at the Powerhouse Museum, an institution that houses the AWA sign that once sat atop the eponymous1930s skyscraper, and a red neon greyhound removed recently from Wentworth Park Raceway. ‘The days of William Street being a gallery for neon are long gone. The Coca-Cola sign is all that’s left.’

Since then we’ve added the Sharpies Golf House sign to the Powerhouse collection, another of many well-known neons to disappear from Sydney nights (there’ll be an article about the Sharpies sign in the next issue of Powerline). The decline of neon as a marketing and visual medium is partly one of advertising fashion and technological change – LED signs are cheaper, less fragile and use much less electricity than neons.

Nonetheless the long-standing fondness for neons survives. In 1935 the poet Kenneth Slessor eulogised Kings Cross neons:

The red globe of light, the liquor green,

the pulsing arrows and the running fire

spilt on the stones, go deeper than a stream;

You find this ugly, I find it lovely

Slessor was a leading chronicler and denizen of Kings Cross and its twentieth century ‘bohemian’ identity. But the recent gentrification of the Cross, the decline of night clubs, strip clubs, tourist hotels and other landmarks also saw the demise of their neons.  In 2004 this came to a head with Sydney City Council introducing a lighting code for the Cross which would have banned most forms of neon advertising signage.

Shocked by the community uproar, Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore effected a quick about-face, responding to ‘community concern about the potential loss of distinctive neon signage at Kings Cross. “Today I met with Council officers working on the Darlinghurst Road project to ensure that the unique character of the Kings Cross precinct is respected,” Councillor Moore said.

“I have asked the City to preserve the neon signs that create such a unique sense of place at Kings Cross. These signs include Playbirds International, Love Machine, Stripperama, Porkies and Showgirls.”

Its amusing to read of Porkies et al being granted admission to the heritage pantheon, but It was already too late to save the best neons. The Cross’ neon age faded with its transformation into another booze-soaked ‘entertainment precinct’. The decline of William Street as a car sales precinct also took its toll. The slower-moving and smaller-scale night economy of Melbourne was more successful with some high-profile neons restored in situ, among these the Victoria Bitter and Skipping Girl Vinegar signs.

Photograph of Sharpies Golf House, Elizabeth Street
Sharpies Golf House, Elizabeth Street. Photo courtesy

Restoring neons is not easy. Leaking or broken tubes have to be replaced and despite its image as a quintessentially Modern technology, the creation of neon signage is labour-intensive and artisanal. Making and bending glass tubes is a skilful and expensive business. The VB restoration was financed by its original owner, Carlton & United Breweries while the Skipping Girl restoration was largely financed by energy provider AGL.

This option often isn’t available for all popular signs: the golf shop beneath the Sharpies sign closed before the sign was removed from the roof. The sign’s demise was occasioned by the corrosion of its supporting frame and steel letters and its restoration would have required reconstruction of almost the entire sign, arguably defeating the purpose of its heritage listing. As it happens the owner of the building may incorporate a copy Sharpies sign into a new building on the site, as good an outcome as practically possible.

Photograph of neon 'Greyhound racing' sign
Sign, Wentworth Park Raceway, made by Claude Neon, 1993. Powerhouse Museum collection, gift of Wentworth Park Trust 2007.

Signs collected by museums are another issue. The Neon Museum, Las Vegas holds the largest and best known collection of neon. It features a ‘Neon Boneyard’, where once-prominent signs (including those of the Silver Slipper, Caesar’s Palace and the Stardust) can be viewed by visitors at ground level. Some of these signs have been restored, the original neon tubing replaced with new copies, but the expense of restoration means that the Museum has been selective and the appeal of many of the artefacts comes from seeing close up signs that were once suspended on tall buildings etc.

There are other limitations to displaying neons ‘live’. Many neons are made for rooftops and other inaccessible spaces; they use high voltages, have exposed wiring, generate considerable heat and are not particularly safe near museum visitors. Generally the ones that have been displayed ‘live’ at the Powerhouse are newish signs with enclosed electrics, for example the ‘PubTab’ sign in our Gambling exhibition a decade back. That exhibition also featured an artist’s neon-lit take on gambling – contemporary installations like this are by far the most common form of neon to be found in museums, although neon takes on a different character in gallery interiors. Certainly any frisson generated by juxtaposition of medium and environment has long faded. To enthral, neon needs night.

Charles Pickett, curator

4 responses to “Neons and museums

  • I’m researching the fate of the McWilliams neon sign that used to be @ Central Station Sydney. Image on Flickr & other sites. Any leads or clues ?

  • I’m researching the fate of the McWilliams Neon sign that used to be at Central Station concourse Sydney. Any clues or leads ?

    • Because most neon signs were rented from the major neon co’s, the Mc.
      Williams Wines signs at Wynyard and Central railway, most were scrapped once their leases ran out. We unfortunately don’t hold neons in
      Australia with the same artistic value that American’s hold. A perfect
      example of neon preservation can be seen in New York with an iconic
      Pepsi-Cola sky sign sign set up in a park where all can enjoy sitting under
      the glow on balmy evenings.

    • There were two Mc Williams prominent neon signs, one as you said at
      Central Railway concourse, the other at Wynyard tram platform. Most
      major neons were on lease from the major neon co’s, and when their
      leasing time was finished they were scrapped, to our great loss!W

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