Compelled by poor planning, Powerhouse Museum and North Parramatta campaigners join forces

1-NPRAG - SPM - Clock towerShared anger about the determination of the Baird Government to sell off “surplus” real estate has brought together advocates for the Powerhouse Museum to remain in Ultimo and those campaigning for a better vision for the North Parramatta heritage precinct. On Tuesday, March 29, a busload of museum supporters came from the inner city for a tour of the North Parramatta site, escorted by historian and former mental health nurse, Dr Terry Smith, with fellow historian and tour operator Judith Dunn. The event was arranged by North Parramatta Residents Action Group, supported by Parramatta Female Factory Friends.The visitors were stunned by the extraordinary history encompassed by the site, including evidence of 20,000 years of indigenous occupation, Governor Phillip’s 1788 campsite, links to Reverend Samuel Marsden’s farm operated from 1803 to 1840, and the first of the many incarnations, which began with the 1821 opening of the convict Parramatta Female Factory – now part of Cumberland Hospital. Some of the tour group, above, stand under the historic clock on Male Ward 1 (now the Institute of Psychiatry), built in the 1880s from the sandstone of the original Female Factory. Gay Hendriksen of PFF Friends, far left, Suzette Meade of NPRAG, third from left, Jamie Parker MP, fifth from right, and Patricia Johnson of SPM, to his left.

It was clear from discussion over lunch that the state government’s proposed move of the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta did not originate in western Sydney. In fact for years the region has sought its own independent centre relevant to local, regional and national history, arts and culture. Apart from any other consideration, the cost of relocating the Powerhouse Museum from its present Sydney site to Parramatta would be far greater than the $200 million the government anticipates from the sale of the site. The primary reason for local acceptance of the proposed move to Parramatta is pragmatism. The western Sydney region receives such a small proportion of arts funding that locals are willing to accept something, rather than nothing at all. So much for Premier Mike Baird as Minister for Western Sydney!

1-NPRAG - SPM - Judith DunnThe visit ended with a declaration that both parties, from the east and the west of Sydney, would combine their enthusiasm and commitment to further the goals of both organisations. They would continue to meet in their common interests and acknowledged that there was no division and no elitism between the City of Sydney and the City of Parramatta, “despite government efforts to drive a wedge between them”. While thankful to find their own cause supported, Save the Powerhouse Museum campaigners were equally supportive of a more equitable share of arts funding for western Sydney. Above right, historian Judith Dunn explains the characteristics of a remnant wall of the Parramatta Female Factory. Convict and colonial architect, Frances Greenway had given instructions for a “rusticated” wall, with bevelled edges to the sandstone blocks, cut to shape and individually marked by convict labourers, she said. Trouble was, the bevels allowed enterprising women to climb over the wall and men to climb in. As a result, the top bevels had to be smoothed, as Judith is demonstrating here.

The future of the heritage precinct in Fleet St, North Parramatta has been the focus of many recent meetings. In mid-February, the Parramatta branch of the National Trust, under the leadership of Brian Powyer, revisited Brian’s address to last October’s symposium about creating an alternate vision for the site. The Challenge – Foundations, Enterprise, Destination outlined with careful detail, the steps required for sustainable tourism to the site that would generate substantial financial return, while integrating the needs of tourism, protection of the environment and heritage. Authenticity is a key demand of tourism, he said.

Three days later, members of the UrbanGrowth NSW’s Parramatta North Project team addressed a large gathering at an NPRAG meeting, attended by representatives of many community organisations, including the National Trust. In response to expressions of frustration from their audience, team members agreed there should have been continuing community consultation throughout 2015. UrbanGrowth will resume community information (not consultation) sessions, beginning Saturday, April 2, at Parramatta Town Hall, 10am to 1pm. They will be followed by two more sessions on April 5 and 6, from 6pm to 9pm. The team emphasised that decisions are ultimately made by their political masters and that they are the people to be lobbied. Team leader Tasha Burrell stated firmly that the Minister for the Arts has no interest in the site.

1-NPRAG - SPM - wallsAccompanied by slides, they discussed design thinking, heritage protection, and possible future management. Left, is a photo from the recent tour of a neglected site overlooking the Parramatta River. At the back is the sandstone wall of the Governor Gipps Courtyard, where a former gateway (now sealed off) allowed convict women access to the river. Adjoining the wall from the right is a brick wall, which enclosed the Parramatta Girls Home and which was increased in height with every escape and disturbance. While sympathetic with many community concerns, team members insisted that the project will lose money. Sale of much of the land for high rise development was an important option for financing the work needed and was reconcilable with the heritage and environmental needs of the site, they said. UrbanGrowth will shortly become interim owner of the site.

Later this year, the first development application goes to Parramatta Council. It will cover open space, infrastructure, subdivisions and include the conservation management plan. The Female Factory Precinct will not be included in the first DA, because there is still too much to be resolved. In addition, part is still under investigation as a crime scene. The second development application covering the core heritage precinct, landscape and public domain will be lodged in 2017. Brian Powyer urged the establishment of a formally recognised community consultative committee, clearly distinct from a community reference panel, which UrbanGrowth proposes later this year. It also proposes a heritage conference late in 2016.

A month later, Associate Professor Carol Liston spoke to Parramatta Female Factory Friends about her research into the backgrounds of the 25,000 convict women transported to NSW and Van Diemen’s Land until the mid-1850s. So far, there has been little more than anecdotal evidence, but many more records are now available online. Her fellow researcher is a statistician, who advises that until about 30% of the records have been investigated, it is not possible to generalise about the women. So far, their extensive investigations reveal that, by and large, the women were inventive and professional thieves, rather than prostitutes. They still have a great deal more evidence to sift.

1-Heritage Snapshot North ParraUrbanGrowth is currently reviewing a draft Heritage Snapshot booklet, right, which they circulated for public comment at NPRAG’s February meeting. Feedback means more time is required to check facts and perspectives on the history published. They hope that a final version will be available online by the end of April. It is an immensely interesting summary of 48 pages, providing on overview of Aboriginal history, early colonial and industrial enterprises, and the progressive development of the institutions, including the Female Factory, the Roman Catholic Orphan School, Parramatta Gaol, Parramatta Mental Hospital and the Norma Parker Correctional Centre for women. It includes maps, prints, photos, timelines, diagrams and discussion of cultural landscapes.

Although not intended, it’s difficult to avoid reading Heritage Snapshot as a powerful argument for a delay in any decision making about sale and development of the site, while so much more of its history is researched and wider discussion about its future is undertaken. In March, Bonney Djuric of Parragirls wrote “This month the Memory Project features on the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, New York. We have come a long way since 2006 when we first started and will continue to pursue our vision for the dedication and designation of the former Parramatta Girls Home and the adjacent Cumberland Hospital Female Factory site as a publicly owned cultural heritage destination.”

Powerhouse Museum.jpg - Jeremy PiperIt’s a big step forward and part of a much bigger vision for the site than just a small heritage oasis surrounded by high rise apartments. No wonder Jamie Parker MP summed up the meeting of members of Save the Powerhouse Museum, NPRAG and Parramatta Female Factory Friends by saying the “compelling nature of the issue of shoddy, hopelessly inadequate consultation”, by the state government has brought both groups together in “a unique alliance between the inner city and western Sydney”. They will continue to meet in a campaign for a review of both proposals. In little more than a year, NPRAG’s membership has grown to about 600. Above, is Jeremy Piper’s photo of the Powerhouse Museum, Ultimo.

If you would like to organise a group tour of the North Parramatta Heritage site, contact historian and tour guide, Judith Dunn – judith@pasttimestours.com.

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2 thoughts on “Compelled by poor planning, Powerhouse Museum and North Parramatta campaigners join forces

  1. Pingback: Democracy repeatedly sabotaged in heritage, arts and cultural planning | Western Sydney Frontier

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