Yesterday’s Tomorrows: The Powerhouse Museum and Its Precursors 1880-2005 by Graeme Davison and Kimberly Webber (eds)

Eras Journal – Katz, Review of Yesterday’s Tomorrows: The Powerhouse Museum and its Precursors 1880-2005, ed Graeme Davison and Kimberley Webber

Graeme Davison and Kimberly Webber (eds), Yesterday’s Tomorrows: The Powerhouse Museum and Its Precursors 1880-2005,
Powerhouse Publishing in Association with UNSW Press, Haymarket, 2005.
Isbn 0868409855

It is somewhat fitting that Yesterday’s Tomorrows: The Powerhouse Museum and Its Precursors 1880-2005, is laid out a little like a museum. Within a central theme one may wander through the “galleries” in any order, on occasion stopping at a particularly interesting case. The Powerhouse’s prize locomotive, a robotic cow used to train rodeo horses and an historian’s memory of regular visits as a schoolboy are all juxtaposed without dissonance. As such this museum history, edited by Graeme Davison and Kimberly Webber, is one of those rare books that works equally well on several levels.

Firstly, it is a visual celebration of the Powerhouse Museum and its collections. Like many of the large format “Treasures” books recently produced by Museum Victoria and the National Library of Australia (though both in support of temporary exhibitions), Yesterday’s Tomorrows features rich photographs not only of the current collection, but also of the building itself as well as historical images from the earlier incarnations: the Technological, Industrial and Sanitary Museum, the Technological Museum and the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. Particularly striking are the architectural photographs, the images of the Strasbourg Clock and drawings and models from the botanical collection (on the other hand, be warned that some of the medical models are a bit jarring if one is unfamiliar with this type of object).

Yesterday’s Tomorrows , however, is not designed merely as a catalogue and its major contribution is not in images but in its text. Davison, Webber and the various contributors have created a history not just of a single museum but of the Australian Museum environment over the last hundred and twenty-five years. Yesterday’s Tomorrows traces the changes in expected audiences and those audiences’ expectations of a museum. It examines the evolving curatorial class, the challenges faced (many of which are shared across the ages) and what the curators hoped to achieve both in terms of display but also in the related museological fields of education and entertainment.

Perhaps most importantly the museum is not treated as though it exists in a glass case. Apart from its first thirteen years the museum has resided in Ultimo, first alongside, and incorporated with the Sydney Technical College and then since 1988 in the former tram depot and Powerhouse buildings. This relationship to Ultimo and the way the neighbourhood has changed and developed is a recurring theme in the contributions and provides insight into the role museums play in our cities both geographically and ideologically.

One of the strengths of this volume was an unexpected willingness to deal with the controversy and critique that has sometimes been laid at the Powerhouse Museum ‘s doorstep. With some justification, critics have queried whether through courting large amounts of commercial sponsorship the museum has become a venue for rent such that advertising gets recast as exhibition. (As an example a recent exhibition on the correlation of science and play seemed to include a large number of items listed by their manufacturer without much stress on their scientific connections.) Others have been concerned by a version of industrial progress that disregards the effect on human labour both in terms of the dangers of heavy industries and the potential redundancies caused by increased automation of manufacturing.[1] While this book does not dwell on such critiques it does acknowledge them. Davison and Webber’s introductory history illuminates that such comments are not new, noting that an 1884 visitors book included the comment that the museum was “no good for labour” and speculating that such responses may account for the lack of a comments column in subsequent visitors books (p. 16). One of the great dangers of anniversary publications is that they can often create the illusion of a history basked in unmitigated glory. The editors and contributors of Yesterday’s Tomorrows are to be commended for their willingness to allow some of the warts to be seen.

Finally, Yesterday’s Tomorrow’s serves as a collection of some of the major voices in Australian material culture. Many of the contributors are curators at the Powerhouse Museum but joining them are the likes of Richard White, Linda Young, architect Lionel Glenndenning and of course, Graeme Davison. Their sections reflect not only the history of the Powerhouse but much of the current Australian museological discourse such as representations of Australia (White), questions of didacticism (Young) and issues of museum design (Glenndenning). In Davison’s individual piece on the Strasbourg clock we can see reflected one of the Professor’s on-going interests in public time-pieces. Taken as whole for the museum studies student, the collection provides an unofficial introductory reader into the mindset of Australia ‘s material culturalists.

All in all, Yesterday’s Tomorrows captures a major Australian museum in an interesting and engaging manner. Like the museum itself, the book can be returned to many times, each revealing something new.

[1] See Margaret Anderson, “Selling the Past: History in Museums in the 1990s”, in J. Rickard And P. Spearitt (eds),Packaging the Past? Public Histories: Australian Historical Studies Special Issue, Vol. 26, No. 96, April 1991, pp.130-141. Back

Meighen Katz

School of Historical Studies, Monash University