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Newsletter 345

Published July 6, 2020
The days of the Green Bans are back - at Willow Grove!

In all the years I’ve been writing no piece has ever generated a bigger response than last week’s blast on the proposed ‘move’ of the Powerhouse Museum, so I’m leaving it in the headline slot for another week. The feedback was roughly 99% in favour, which should be a source of concern for the people behind the project. Normally any piece of writing will attract a range of supporters and detractors, but the few who wrote in disagreement weren’t particularly strong on knowledge or logic.

Some are prepared to believe the wealthy elites of the eastern suburbs spend their days plotting how to starve the western suburbs of cultural resources. The truth is rather the opposite. The supporters of the existing Powerhouse Museum – most of whom seem to live in the inner west – have put forward numerous proposals for museum projects in Parramatta that are genuinely responsive to local needs and desires. The government has chosen to ignore every overture in their determination to destroy the Powerhouse at Ultimo, sell the site to developers, and impose a massive commercial development on Parramatta that bears no resemblance to a museum.

There is no reason in the world why a new development in Parramatta must be dependent on the destruction of an existing one in Ultimo. It is emphatically not an ecomomically rational decision because trying to ‘relocate’ the collection from Ultimo will cost the taxpayer at least a billion dollars more than any brand new stand-alone initiative. All the claims made by proponents of the scheme are the merest wishful thinking, intended to justify a project that defies conscience and common sense.

Last week, in their most even-handed maner, the Sydney Morning Herald invited Barney Glover, the hand-picked president of the PHM’s Board of Trustees, to put the case for the move. He tried to tell us it’s all about “cultural equity” – even though an overwhelming number of people don’t see any cultural benefit whatsoever, only a commercial benefit to a handful of business types. He claimed that articles criticising the project were “error-filled” then proceeded to peddle a lot of shameless propaganda. Apparently the collection is set to “thrive” in its new home. (Presumably he means a warehouse in Castle Hill). It will all be bigger and better. (Especially if you demolish the existing biggest museum in NSW). It’s time for “renewal”! (‘Destruction is also creation’ – Bakunin). It’s “a bold reimagining!” (There’s certainly a lot of imagination involved). Critics of the scheme are defenders of “tired cultural hierarchies” (Barney Guevara) filled with “confected outrage”. (He can’t imagine why anyone could be opposed to this bright idea..).

Could anything be stupider? More antithetical to the truth? Should we believe the shallow spin of Professor Glover over the monumental, detailed research of museum expert, Kylie Winkworth? Would people who felt “confected outrage” spend years of their lives, without pay or recompense, fighting absurd and destructive proposals put forward by a government that has already wasted $40 million on a project that has NEVER made the slightest cultural, social, economic or political sense?

Such comments are patronising, ignorant and morally repugnant. They typify the quality of thought that has gone into this scheme, and expose the arrogant conviction that those in power should be able to do whatever they like, without proper consultation, accountability or transparency. A brief Twitter exchange with a couple of supporters of the idea was sufficient to show me that nobody who wants this new development has a clue what a museum is or does.

The big news is that the CFMEU has slapped a Green Ban on the destruction of Willow Grove. This will add an element of interest to proceedings. What does Gladys do now? Send in the Storm Troopers?

There’s lots more to talk about but I’ll save it for newsletters to come, and introduce this week’s columns. The art review looks at Shadow Catchers at the Art Gallery of NSW, a reasonably engaging photography show surrounded by a lot of creaky, quasi-theoretical propositions. You’ll have plenty of time to savour it  because all the collection shows at the AGNSW have been extended “until 2021”. The SMH has told me because of space issues they’re holding publication for a week, so you’re getting it here first.

This week’s movie is Shirley, a twisted, somewhat misleading look at the American writer, Shirley Jackson. Being a fan of Jackson’s books I went into this movie with the greatest trepidation, but was surprised by its overall quality. It may not be a bio pic but it’s full of intriguing insights and ideas. Elisabeth Moss puts in a tremendous performance, even if her version of Shirley Jackson remains controversial. The very style of the film argues a deep acquaintance with Jackson’s work. It suggests that if you’e going to do something provocative with an icon it’s best that you’re familiar with your subject. This is a lesson for those who don’t know the difference between a museum and an entertainment complex. Knowledge may be power, but power without knowledge is a recipe for disaster.