Inside the Collection

Career of a Powerhouse Museum Curator

Two women sit at a table behind a toy house made of plastic construction bricks. It is a high-roofed single-storey house made up of red, green and white 'BAYKO' parts with a lawn, white fence, path and a small gazebo to the house's right.
During her internship in 2010, Carly Todhunter worked with me on the photo-shoot of this Bayko toy house dating from about 1955. Powerhouse Collection 2011/37/1. Photo: Geoff Friend, MAAS

How do you condense a lifetime’s dream job as a curator at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum into around 1,000 words? Well, my career at the Museum began on 1 February 1983 as a Research Assistant with the Department of Transport and Engineering when the Powerhouse was still a construction site. As a young Museum Studies graduate, I was given the opportunity to develop the cavernous boiler hall of the former Ultimo Power Station into the popular Transport Exhibition.

A group of ten young men and women wearing construction hats stand and kneel around a tram which served as a hearse. The tram hearse is a low, four-wheel timber vehicle with a low-curved roofline. At each end there are three doors into which the coffins were placed. From the central open door of the hearse a coffin is balanced on the shoulders of two of the men who are kneeling to support it. On top of the coffin is a floral wreath.
The young curatorial team who developed the original exhibitions in the Powerhouse Museum’s boiler hall are seen here wearing hard hats on-site at the Toyota sponsorship announcement in 1986. From left to right starting at the top are: Esther Chan, Jenny Owen, Roger Garland, Kerrie Dougherty, me, Diana Hill, Jenny Jones, David Martens, Daniel Luscombe and Sally Cooke. We’re around the Museum’s 1896 tram hearse with my custom-made coffin and wreath. Powerhouse Collection B1270. Photo: MAAS

They were exciting days, preparing to move from our home since 1893 within the Sydney Tech College to our new site further down Harris Street. The Museum’s vast historic collection began to be rediscovered and researched for the first time, drawing out its history and significance in preparation for opening the Powerhouse in 1988.

A woman wearing overalls is standing inside an old factory building in front of a large steam traction engine which has a canopy roof. A traction engine is a self-propelling steam road vehicle. The fuel was burnt and steam raised in a locomotive-type boiler.
In the years before our current storage facilities at Castle Hill, former wool stores and factory buildings were leased to store the collection. This often necessitated the wearing of overalls. I’m seen here at the Arncliffe store in southern Sydney in 1984 with the Museum’s 1907 Burrell steam traction engine. Powerhouse Collection B2595. Photo: Lindsey Shaw, MAAS

Back in the ’80s, object research was laborious. There was no internet, emails nor word processing. Research had to be painstakingly done from books, journals and newspapers in libraries and archives; by finding and contacting local experts; or writing letters overseas and waiting weeks for replies. Everything was either typed on a typewriter (not a PC) or hand written. The results were hidden away in object files and never read unless requested by the occasional enthusiast or researcher. This all changed in the ‘noughties’ in a pioneering move which saw the Museum’s collection go online, the first in the world to do so. All my research, over 3,600 records, is now accessible for millions to read and comment on. This large number would not have been possible without the assistance of my many committed volunteers and interns over the years.

A young woman wearing a kilt is looking at the photographer and stands next to a steam wagon. The steam wagon, which is surrounded by clouds of steam, is standing on a concrete pavement outside a workshop. A steam wagon is a self-propelled steam-powered truck with a timber tip tray. The side of the steam wagon has the wording 'Municipality of Rockdale' for whom the wagon was built and the front has the manufacturer's name, 'Aveling & Porter'. A man with a long beard is standing on the other side of the wagon looking at the wagon's steam engine.
The Museum’s 1920 Aveling & Porter steam wagon was restored to steaming condition in-house and I researched its history and original appearance. I’m seen here watching the wagon’s inaugural steaming in 1985 outside the workshop. Engineering Conservator, Ross Goodman, casts a critical eye over the wagon’s workings. Powerhouse Collection B1509. Photo: MAAS

I’ve unearthed some quirky and amazing objects from the collection and made sure their stories were told. Our 18th century European sedan chair was used in Australia as a domestic telephone booth and the wires are still attached to prove it; an Arnott’s biscuit given out at the Easter Show which is now almost 100 years old; clothing, ice axes and sledges used on Mawson’s Antarctic expedition; and the damaged propeller from Kingsford Smith’s epic 1935 cross-Tasman flight. Most poignant and topical is the 1919 Influenza Emergency Worker’s badge. It was researched a year before COVID-19 hit, detailing the same restrictions on people at that time as we are having now.

A woman wearing overalls and a 'high-viz' vest is standing on the front of a huge steam locomotive which is in steam. A board on the front of the steam locomotive has the wording "3830 owned and maintained by the Powerhouse Museum".
Standing on the Museum’s magnificent steam locomotive 3830 in 2004. It’s quietly idling in steam on what is now the Goods Line walkway (behind the ABC) between the Museum and Central station. Powerhouse Collection 88/4. Photo: Sue Stafford, MAAS

Some truly memorable and unusual experiences were riding on the footplate of our steam locomotive 3830; having to order a coffin for our tram hearse to fit my body size; riding on a Chamberlain tractor through rice farms of the Riverina on the Coleambally tractor trek; and making a video from the driver’s front window of our Sydney Monorail just before its decommissioning in 2013. Unfortunately, Transport curators don’t ride around on locos, tractors and monorails every day. Much of our work involves writing in the office. This includes everything from acquisition documentation, books, articles and conference papers to labels, blog posts, answering public enquiries, exhibition proposals and briefs.

Three people are standing inside a Sydney Monorail driver's cab wearing high-viz vests. The front window of the monorail car is raised and the track ahead can be seen. The Monorail is travelling along the track and the view from the side windows is blurred as it travels along. A tall man is operating a video camera, the driver operates the monorail and a young woman stands behind him.
We placed a tiny Go-Pro camera in front of the driver’s window of what was to become the Museum’s Monorail car to film the vehicle’s circuit around Darling Harbour in 2013. I’m with a Monorail driver and Audio-Visual Manager, Zoltan Nemes-Nemeth, who is taking extra video footage. Powerhouse Collection 2014/13/1. Photo: Geoff Friend, MAAS

I’ve been fortunate to write several books for the Museum. On the Move: a history of transport in Australia brought together decades of research into our Transport collection. Undoubtedly the most difficult was the children’s book, Rail Tales: Emily’s big train ride. Paring down text to engage kids was a challenge requiring much frustrating rewriting.

Of all the different types of writing required of curators, I’ve most enjoyed tapping out posts for the Museum’s Inside the Collection blog. At first reticent, I ended up one of its most enthusiastic bloggers, and this last one is my 99th! It was an excellent platform to highlight fascinating research unearthed, collection objects discovered, and new acquisitions revealed; from the small bicycles ridden in the 1930s by monkeys at Taronga Zoo to equipment used on the world’s first unsupported trek to the South Pole in 2012 by adventurers, Cas and Jonesy.

Three people are standing around a display case in the foyer of the Museum. They are looking at a Barbie doll wearing a long gold and white striped evening dress with an orange sash and long white gloves. The doll is standing in the centre of a small display case from which numerous lengths of white and gold curling ribbon cascade down either side of her from the top. A woman wearing a lab coat and blue latex gloves bobs down to look inside the display case. A trolley with cleaning equipment and a feather duster can be seen on the left. In the background can be seen a sign which reads 'Powerhouse Shop'.
How does Barbie look in her 1965 ‘Holiday Dance’ outfit? We’re installing Barbie’s 50th Birthday exhibition in the foyer display case in 2009. Conservator, Gosia Dudek, does the final check while Exhibition Designer, Malcolm McKernan, and I look on. Powerhouse Collection A8816. Photo: Sotha Bourn, MAAS

Another of a curator’s key roles is working with a team of registrars, conservators, editors, preparators and designers to develop and produce exhibitions. It’s highly exhilarating and creative but quite exhausting and demanding. In my case this ranged from a single object, celebrating Barbie’s 50th birthday, to almost 5,000 objects at the Museums Discovery Centre at Castle Hill. As lead curator of the latter, I chose many items which had never been on display before like the elegant 1888 Barouche carriage, similar to one the Queen would arrive in at Ascot, and the 1955 home-made caravan with its original contents including a 40-year-old jar of sugar. The Discovery Centre exhibitions also reveal my secret love of the domestic appliance collection and a fascination with the history of toilets.

A woman is standing at a lectern addressing a small group of people in a museum exhibition area which has old cars lined up on display. Behind her is a man wearing a suit and a woman wearing a scarf. They standing are both near a Rolls-Royce limousine which has a crown instead of a number plate. The photographer has taken the image looking through an old car which has no windows but a canopy roof. The leather seats and steering wheel of the car can be seen.
Speaking at the launch of the Auto Obsession exhibition in 2014, I can be seen through the Museum’s 1916 Model T Ford, together with Arts Minister, Troy Grant, and then Director, Rose Hiscock. Powerhouse Collection B727. Photo: Sotha Bourn, MAAS

While the Castle Hill exhibitions were the most taxing, highlighting the Museum’s car collection, in Auto Obsession, was the most rewarding. It was the first time the cream of our automobiles had been shown to the general public, together with over 2,000 of our Matchbox toys. The cars were on open display requiring dusting twice a week. One visitor asked if the 1935 Ford V8 was my own, as I was cleaning it so lovingly!

A woman is standing on top of a wooden box on the top of a small flight of stairs in the museum. In front of her is a small group of people and the entrance doors and admission desk to the museum. To the left of her is an old steam locomotive.
Standing next to one of the Museum’s most popular objects, Steam Locomotive No.1 of 1854, I’m explaining the locomotive’s history at an open day in 2015. Powerhouse Collection 7949. Photo: Ryan Hernandez, MAAS

As well as writing, curators have to talk about their collections and exhibitions. I’ve been interviewed by journalists, radio announcers, TV reporters and documentary makers. For my Transport book alone, I undertook 45 radio interviews over 5 weeks, many live-to-air from my desk or the ABC’s Tardis studio. So, public speaking is very much part of the job, from seminars, conferences and public talks, to tours and training for volunteer museum guides.

A woman wearing jeans and a leather coat is standing on a narrow wooden platform inside a steam tram. To her right is the side of a boiler and to her left are two windows. A steam tram is like a steam locomotive which travelled along streets. A wooden cab enclosed the entire locomotive, which features five windows along each side. Access to the cab is through doors from either a front or back platform.
After speaking at the 140th anniversary of steam tram operation in NSW, I’m on board steam tram motor 103A at the Valley Heights Locomotive Depot Heritage Museum in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney in 2019. Photo: Phillip Simpson.

While curators occasionally travel overseas to give conference papers and install travelling exhibitions, my role was to visit scores of local history museums all over NSW as part of the Museum’s regional outreach programme. I loved exploring these amazing collections advising of their most significant and rare agricultural objects and providing research reports they could use for labels and online content.

Over the years I’m grateful to have worked with some wonderful colleagues including Sandra McEwen, Debbie Rudder, Lindie Ward and Rebecca Pinchin; mentored enthusiastic interns such as Rebecca Anderson and Chloe Appleby; and been assisted by dedicated volunteers including Judy Campbell, Ken Williams and Graeme Andrews. It’s also been a pleasure to have met generous donors, especially the Edworthy family regarding the cycling collection; the Booker family regarding the Meccano collection; and George and Charis Schwarz regarding their 1965 BMW motorcycle and its heartfelt story.

Few can say they have loved almost every day of their working careers. It’s been such a privilege and honour to work at the Museum on an outstanding, eclectic, and highly significant collection. And so, on 15 January 2021 as I close my laptop for the last time, I’ll be passing on custodianship of the Museum’s collection to the next generation of young curators to carry on a legacy which goes back over 140 years. What will retirement bring? Certainly, a lot more writing. You haven’t heard the last of me yet!

Written by Margaret Simpson, Curator
January 2021

4 responses to “Career of a Powerhouse Museum Curator

  • Thankyou Margaret for your wonderful career. I myself worked at the Powerhouse from 1990 to 2014 so I can appreciate what you have done. All the best of luck in your retirement.

    Kindest regards,

    Paul J. Laxton

  • What a shining light you have been. What a lovely blog this was.
    The PHM will be deeply impacted by the day-to-day loss of your deep cultural and museological expertise. If I was in the NSW Government I would make sure you were properly recognised for your dedication, practice and amazing contribution over nearly forty years. I would like to say a profound ‘thank you’ and wish you a wonderful ‘retirement’.
    All the very best for the future,

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