Opening the Museum: The Powerhouse Experience 

Brooking Paper on Creativity Honorable Mention (2013)

By Peter Morton

Much has been written about the transition from museums as object-focused institutions to a greater client focus, where values of participation and inclusion inform the practice of the people working there and the exhibitions and experiences they offer. This shift in values has most often found expression in exhibitions and programs that invite interaction and self-directed and cross-generational learning and which foster creative expression. This museum has benefited from engaging the community as participants in key planning forums, which once were the exclusive domain of the board, management and staff.

Widening the conversation about the museum’s strategic directions to engage with its public has required courage and commitment—a willingness to hear perceptions of the audience that may be uncomfortable, and a commitment to listen and respond respectfully to what one hears.

The appointment of a new director in 2008 provided the catalyst for applying the ethos of the participatory museum to the planning processes that would in turn establish new strategic directions for the Powerhouse. The process commenced with a series of small group forums composed of (predominantly curatorial) staff and external participants, in which often uncomfortable conversations challenged staff perceptions and laid the foundations for a deeper conversation about the museum’s future directions. The concept of the “open museum”—open to rich engagement, to new conversations about the collection and transparent in how we work and make decisions—emerged from these forums and has underpinned the changes this renewal has enabled.

Reflecting this country’s relative youth, our cultural institutions lack the centuries-long pedigree that often exist in other cultures. Nevertheless, with a history spanning 130 years, the ethos and practices of the Powerhouse had over time become deeply ingrained. Opening the conversation about the museum’s future to the community proved invaluable in enabling a process of cultural change, and with it a commitment to a more audience-centered set of values and practices.

The series of small group forums were followed by a detailed review of the museum’s performance. Visitor trends, audience evaluation and comparison with similar data from other museums in Australia and New Zealand revealed some disturbing trends. As a museum of applied arts and sciences, the Powerhouse acquired a deserved reputation for innovation in interpretation and interactive exhibition design in its transition to a new location 25 years ago. Aging permanent galleries have seen this reputation decline. Over the past decade, regular, repeat visitation was replaced by occasional visits linked to major “blockbuster” traveling exhibitions. The diversity of these exhibitions contributed to an increasingly confused identity, with visitor feedback suggesting the museum’s brand had become “schizophrenic.”

The development of a new strategic plan that was to enshrine the principles of the open museum was therefore framed by compelling evidence of the need for change. The concept required a new level of “openness” and transparency in the way the plan was to be conceived. Over the early months of 2009, successive iterations were provided to staff, volunteers and visitors for comment and refinement. Large text panels were placed in the museum café, and visitors were invited to use Post-It notes to add comments; an advanced draft was placed on the website. This highly consultative process contributed invaluable refinements and dramatically enhanced the level of staff ownership of the final document.

The “open museum” challenged us to explore new ways to engage with audiences, to conceive and deliver programs with partners as “co-creators,” and to dissolve the boundaries among exhibitions, programs, publications and Web content. It invited new approaches to exhibition design and a focus on visitor participation designed to promote self directed discovery and learning. It committed us to an internal culture of dialogue, experimentation, transparency and individual accountability. And finally, it provided the design brief for the first major physical transformation of the museum in 25 years.

Three years on, have we realized these ideals? The values and priorities of the plan have been embedded in a range of museum practices, particularly those requiring programming and resource decisions. A suite of internally developed exhibitions has been conceived and delivered in a more collaborative and outwardly focused manner, and programs have addressed more timely and often controversial themes.

Collaborations with children’s authors—including Shaun Tan, who won an Academy Award for The Lost Thing, a film adaptation of his picture book—have co-created collection-based exhibitions that have playfully reinterpreted objects and invited young visitors to write their own labels or otherwise be inspired by new collection-based narratives.

An exploration of the intersection between faith and fashion among Australian Muslim women was conceived in partnership with communities and organizations. It introduced a community that has traditionally not engaged with this museum to be centrally involved in shaping an exhibition that told stories in ways that were important to them. It enabled these women to speak about their experiences and opinions and, in turn, address the stereotypes often assumed by the wider community. A curator-led collaborative team process ensured the seamless integration of website development, audio-visual experiences, design, publication, and education and community-focused public program components into a coherent whole.

“Love Lace: Powerhouse Museum International Lace Award” is perhaps the most mature realization of the plan’s priorities. Designed in partnership with a leading Sydney architecture practice, this exhibition of lace works by a variety of artists achieved a dramatic harmony between the objects and the display environment. The related digital content provided visitors with layers of experience, documenting the creative process that often challenged conventional practice, and was accessible in the gallery and online. A conference and publication further contributed to a strategic plan priority to dissolve the boundaries among exhibitions, programs, publications and Web content. The exhibition, publication and Web content each won awards, which included special recognition for the “Inter-lace” micro documentary series of videos showing five of the artists creating their lace works.

Similarly, “The 80s are back,” a narrative exhibition about life and culture in Australia in the 1980s, demonstrated cross-platform delivery of content, providing contact with interest groups through on-site and online engagement. During the exhibition’s development, there was extensive use of online resources and social networking (including a curator’s blog) to gather ideas and build interest anticipating the exhibition’s launch and accompanying programs.

The nostalgic tendencies inherent in social networking platforms such as Facebook gave curators a unique opportunity to research and directly engage with the memories, photos and memorabilia of Australian youth, turning it into exhibition and Web content. The extended website built to accompany the exhibition has embraced considerable content from external contributors. The website was subsequently recognized with a Muse Award from AAM’s Media & Technology Network for its depth of content and community engagement across multiple platforms.

Each of these creative partnerships has also provided opportunities for staff to more confidently participate in curating, planning and developing projects that challenge and extend their skills and experience. 

A more “open” approach to the display of objects in the museum has been developed. Registration and conservation staff have adopted a more flexible approach to object safety and exhibition design in which individual objects and exhibitions are assessed for risk. The security required for an object is assessed according to a range of criteria such as the nature and material of the object, as well as the target audience for an exhibition. This considered approach requires more input during the planning phase of exhibitions, but has resulted in more varied, accessible and engaging exhibition design.

Reflecting a renewed interest in craft practice and a new generation of the Maker community, a series of weekend programs has enabled visitors to engage with craftspeople who are both reviving traditional craft arts and reinterpreting them through use of new media and practices.

An innovative after-school care program has seen participating students from a local school visit the museum one afternoon each week for a program designed to enhance science and math literacy. The learning environment is managed by staff volunteers, and the program has introduced the museum to a diverse and often disadvantaged young audience that frequently feels alienated by mainstream cultural experiences.

The Powerhouse is located in a neighborhood that includes a leading technology university, the national broadcaster and a major tertiary technical training institute. Each of these institutions shares an interest in nurturing skills and attributes such as collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving. Concepts such as “living labs” that foster boundary-spanning capabilities are now part of the learning environment being created at the university and at the museum. Each of our precinct neighbors is also a digital content creator, and the museum has partnered in local history and other projects that are based on content collaboration and partnership.

The first major renewal of the museum’s physical form has also been informed by the concept of the open museum. The brief to architects called for the relocation of the main entrance, café and retail outlets, and for these works to address wayfinding and visitor orientation. Relocation of elevators and escalators has dramatically enhanced a sense of openness and porosity in the revitalized spaces.

An open access licensing policy has been adopted to encourage access for non-commercial use and re-use of the museum’s rich image collection. In April 2008 the Powerhouse became the first museum in the world to place historical photographic content into the Commons on Flickr, an initiative of the photo-sharing website Flickr. The images have now been accessed more times through Flickr than ever before on the museum’s online collection database. The Flickr user base is also adding useful metadata to these images as “tags” and in some cases is contributing new identification information about the content, date or location of these images, which will assist the future cataloguing of these images by the museum. The open access policy complements a commitment to digitize and make accessible the museum’s collection records. More than 80 percent of collection records are now available online, and all collection metadata have been licensed under a Creative Commons license.

A leading American consultant who has visited the museum on a number of occasions since 2009 has observed a clear alignment of the museum’s activities with its strategic priorities, heightened morale and a clearer sense of direction among staff. She has noted “a new sense of adventure and try out.”

As we embark on the development of the plan to take us through to 2016, we are adopting an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, approach to its next iteration. Once again we have commenced a conversation with our audience about what they expect from us in the three years ahead. The principle of the “open museum” will once again provide the framework around which the plan’s priorities will be developed.

A survey of engaged visitors—members and others registered in special interest databases—has already provided some valuable observations. There is high recognition of the museum as a “learning institution” across school, tertiary and lifelong learning sectors. There is very high recognition of science, engineering and inventions as the key themes associated with the museum. There is opportunity for the next strategic plan to give greater emphasis to content relating to the history of human innovation.

The board of trustees has highlighted the need to address the museum’s “brand” and position in Sydney’s cultural environment, and this will initially be addressed through a clearer articulation of the programming principles that will inform program development over multiple platforms in the years ahead.

We often read something that neatly captures a concept or an idea, and which we seek to incorporate into our professional values. For me, a reference from a Salzburg Conference on the participatory museum resonates and will inform our next steps: “Museums are places of learning and exploration—social enterprises that prepare people to discover themselves.”

Peter Morton is manager, strategic policy and planning, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia