Expanding Stories

Evolution of the Castle Hill site from botanical research station to Museum Discovery Centre
It is very necessary that a chemical laboratory should be attached to the proposed Museum, so that new and other raw materials, as well as waste products likely to be useful ... may be examined and made the subject of experiment
Prof Archibald Liversidge, chemistry professor at Sydney University and author of 'Report upon certain Museums for Technology, Science and Art' (1880)
Black and white photographer of a main in a white lab coat studying botanical samples in glass scientific apparatus

Changing Ecosystems

The earliest vision of Sydney's Technological, Industrial and Sanitary Museum, articulated by Prof Liversidge and realised by Joseph Henry Maiden, was of an ‘economic’ museum concerned with the 'science of everyday life', a museum that 'would not only display raw and manufactured products, but would research them as well'.

Photographic montage of photographs depicting various botanical experiments and samples

In an early Annual Report – covering 1880 – J H Maiden noted the museum’s intention ‘to employ the laboratory for the prosecution of original chemical and physical research with especial reference to the utilisation of the products of New South Wales and Australia generally'. This meant the museum needed large quantities of material to investigate and, from 1886, Maiden began to organise a systematic collection of native plant samples, including bark, leaves, flowers and gums.

Object No. 95/219/1-2
Newspaper advertisement for industrial display of Eucalyptus oils and products, The Sun, 5 March 1919

Between 4 May 1890 to 30 June 1905, botanist William Baeuerlen collected extensively in New South Wales covering sites including Lismore, Tintenbar, Ballina, Braidwood; north of Wilcannia, Mt Kosciuszko and the Snowy River, Batemans Bay, the Blue Mountains, Bathurst; Nyngan, Hay, between Condobolin and Grenfell, Narrabri, Tenterfield, Wellington and from Cobar to Mt Hope – as well as eastern Victoria, the continent’s north-east, and a little of south-east Queensland. Eucalyptus baeuerlenii is named for him.

Vintage coloured photograph of two men inspecting tree samples
… The museum carried out significant chemical and botanical research into Australian plants from 1881 to 1979, just shy of a century of major scientific study [...] This research has had a long-lasting legacy in its contribution to the transformation of the Australian essential oil industry from cottage operations in the bush to sophisticated modern enterprises
Chris Betteridge, inaugural landscape and environmental specialist in the Heritage and Conservation Branch of the NSW Department of Planning

In the 1950s, the plantation was identified as preserving a seed orchard for different tree species and chemical types. Betteridge noted the evolution of the site: ‘by the early 1960s most of the Castle Hill site had been planted out with trees and shrubs for phytochemical research, with only a small area of Cumberland Plain Woodland ecological community remaining along the northern boundary'.

I have many happy memories of the site, and it is now so very special to me to be able to walk through the site again, reaching out and listening to the wind in the trees that are part of my Dad. Each row of 20 planted trees was a different species, not always from provenance (that is, Indigenous to the area). There were row upon row of different species all identified by a marker (like at the Botanical Gardens) indicating species, variety, source site, date of planting, date of pruning and any other relative data for the purpose of identifying which variety gave the best volume and quantity of essential oil
Elaine White
Black and white photograph of rows of eucalypt in a plantation

In the 1970s, two reviews commissioned by the NSW Public Service Board query the Museum’s research output and impact. No other science or technology museum in the world is found to include ‘botany and chemistry as ‘an integral part’ of their operations. Laboratory resources are retaining following the first report in 1972.

In 1979, the NSW Science and Technology Council recommends that research into essential oils at the museum be terminated and staff redeployed or relocated. Responsibility for technical advice is transferred to the Department of Agriculture.

Black and white photograph of covered museum objects

Storing Objects

Throughout the 1900s, the museum required external storage for most of the objects in its collections. Storage locations included 547 Kent Street, the Massey Harris Building, the E G Glass Building, Bradford Cotton Mills and the Alexandria Wool Store, as well as properties in Redfern, Arncliffe, Jones St Ultimo, Castle Hill, Eveleigh and Bankstown.

Black and white photograph of museum employee and a coach

Estimates of the storage and floor space required by the museum expand over time, from 10,000 sq ft in 1883 to 50,000 sq ft in the mid-1880s, 100,000 sq feet in the late 1930s and 500,000 sq ft in the 1940s.

Colour photograph of museum objects in storage under canvas

From the late 1970s, various buildings at Castle Hill become the central storage facility for the collections of both the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences and the Australian Museum.

Colour photograph of vintage computer equipment in storage shelving

.In September 1978, Building A at Castle Hill opened It is a two-storey building containing a workshop and collection conservation space.

With the relocation of the conservation lab to Castle Hill in 1980, and the closure of the museum’s other laboratories, the museum’s focus turned to ‘the social implications of research – the role of innovation, health and well being, telecommunications and information technology … Emphasis shifted from the concept of a ‘commercial museum’ for potential entrepreneurs and an industrial museum for talented artisans, to a museum of commodities in which all visitors are consumers to be entertained, as well as educated … science and research in the museum have thereby become objects of study rather than modes of practice.’

Black and white image of a buggy being unloaded off a flat bed
A rigid separation of the museum into two parts: an exhibition series presented simply, logically and attractively for the benefit of those who have no knowledge of the subject treated and; reserve collections arranged and indexed for study purposes
Arthur Penfold
Black and white image of two preparators restoring a boat

Throughout the 1980s, subsequent buildings (B, C and G) were completed at Castle Hill; Buildings E, F and H – and the Discovery Centre – were completed in the 2000s. Many trees from the research plantation’s earliest plantings were removed during construction of these buildings and the neighbouring TAFE.

By the last decades of the 20th century, only four per cent of the museum's collection was on show at any one time. This echoed Arthur Penfold’s suggestion, fifty years earlier, that 90 per cent of the museum’s collections should go into storage – regularly rotated for display and augmented by working models, dioramas and film when they are presented.

A Working Storehouse

The model is a three-dimensional representation of the museum's land and buildings at Castle Hill. Its primary significance is concerned with the spatial arrangement of the new and old display and storage facilities, and how the layout of the buildings enhances public accessibility to the site. The site change from scientific research to the storage and display of a range of objects in the museum's collection [in 1979] was a momentous change for the museum and the model was intended to show these major changes to the site.

Object No. 2008/30/1
Castle Hill site model

In 2021, plans for a new Museum Discovery Centre at Castle Hill received approval. This new site, incorporating a large open storage system, shifts the focus for the Castle Hill site from research to collection, increasing opportunities for public interaction through expanded exhibition space. It creates space with innate flexibility, a new living edge for the institution.

For the first time in the 143-year history of Powerhouse, all our collection of more than 500,000 objects will be consolidated on the one site and co-located with conservation, registration and curatorial teams
Lisa Havilah, chief executive, Powerhouse Museum
Black and white photograph of the Castle Hill site with a small truck to the left, and materials to the right

In 2020, plans for Building J, a 10,000 sqm expansion of storage and conservation facilities at Castle Hill received approval. In spring 2023, one of the southern hemisphere's largest cycloramas was installed and operational on site in Castle Hill.

Measuring 10m by 9m by 5m high, with a 4.8m turntable that can carry up to 4 tonnes, this device also features a fixed gantry allowing objects in the museum’s collection to be photographed and filmed from directly overhead. This augments another stage of sharing and display for the museum’s half-million objects.