Inside the Collection

The Basement Beautification Project

Object placement for the 'basement beautification project'
Object placement for the ‘basement beautification project’. Image: Ryan Hernandez, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences began its life in 1879 as the Technological, Industrial and Sanitary Museum. It developed out of the Sydney International Exhibition of the same year, which was designed to promote commerce, industry, art, science and education in Australia. Much of the Museum’s initial collection was drawn from objects displayed in the exhibition at the Garden Palace. Tragically, on the morning of September 22, 1882, this grand timber structure was engulfed in flames, burning to the ground and destroying the majority of the Museum’s fledgling collection. Thankfully, many of the producers provided the Museum with replacement objects and our collection continued to grow.

Image of The Garden Palace 1879
The Garden Palace, venue for the 1879 Sydney International Exhibition out of which the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences was formed. Image: from the MAAS collection, creator unknown.

Fast-forward to 2017 and the Museum’s collection now contains over 500,000 objects. Our collection is renowned for its breadth and diversity, and contains everything from striking ceramic creations to pieces of scientific breakthroughs to the infamous failed skate-bike (a personal favourite), and much else in between. While it would be impossible to describe our collection in just a few words, the items we collect in the 21st century fall broadly into one of eight disciplines. These are: technologies; health and medicine; physical sciences; engineering; architecture and the built environment; design and decorative arts; fashion; and contemporary culture. Most fascinating to us, though, are the objects that refuse to sit neatly in a single category, and instead span several at once – for example, an Apple iPod, which is both an icon of design as well as a piece of pocket technology, or a dress constructed using 3D printing.

The majority of our collection is located in the ‘Harwood Basement’ store at the Powerhouse Museum – our largest objects (think buses, boats and rocket capsules) are stored at the Museums Discovery Centre (MDC) in Castle Hill. A walk through the Harwood basement takes you along the main corridor, lined with floor-to-ceiling shelving, beyond which lie the ‘cages’ where the smaller and more valuable objects are stored for safekeeping. The corridor shelves have traditionally been the place to store the larger and heavier objects that simply didn’t fit in the cages.

Movement of objects in the Harwood basement store.
Movement of objects in the Harwood basement store. Image: Ryan Hernandez, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

But with the recent investment in the MDC and the new storage facilities there, we now have space to move out some of the larger objects and replace them with a selection that much better represents what it is we collect at MAAS today. Over the last couple of months, the ‘Basement Beautification Team’, consisting of about half a dozen curators, registrars, and conservators, have worked furiously to transform the basement shelves. The registrars took care of the heavy lifting, and transporting truckloads of delicate objects out to the MDC; the curators combed the cages for the objects to put on display; and the conservators assessed every one of them to ensure we met the storage requirements, particularly in terms of lighting levels which can rapidly fade certain colours and materials.

Object placement for the 'basement beautification project'
Placement of objects as part of the ‘basement beautification project’. Image: Ryan Hernandez, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

The improvements mean that visitors to the basement can see at a glance what the MAAS collection is truly about and have the opportunity to meet some of the real highlights of our collection. If you want to see more of what we got up to, watch the time-lapse below, which captures three hour’s activity in less than a minute.

With thanks to the basement beautification team (pictured at end of time-lapse): (back row, from left) Sarah Reeves (Assistant Curator), Campbell Bickerstaff (Curator), Scott Winston (Assistant Registrar), Stephanie Boast (Assistant Registrar); (front row) Nina Earl (Assistant Curator), Sarah Pointon (Assistant Registrar), Rebecca Ellis (Assistant Conservator); not pictured: Sarah Heenan (Collections Officer). Video: Ryan Hernandez, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.

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