Plugged in and turned on – time to get behind our Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences

Three years of uncertainty has failed to weaken the enthusiasm and exciting programming I see coming from our much loved Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS). However ongoing criticism compels me to publicly offer support for the trustees and staff who are working towards an exciting and renewed vision for how the museum will continue to connect internationally and nationally, and to greater Sydney and its dynamic western heart, with the proposed relocation to Parramatta.

The Powerhouse Museum Alliance (PMA) has been consistent in its arguments against the move and correct to challenge what at times has been a fraught process. But it is time to move on. For me, Kylie Winkworth’s recent foray (Powerhouse Unplugged) only confirms this advice. In negatively addressing the idea of a partnership, questioning allegiance to the collection and strangely putting forward that by moving to Parramatta MAAS’s fate will be to become a regional museum, I’m confused by the argument and almost derogatory association implied. Not only do regional museums deserve more respect, Western Sydney’s demographic significance appears poorly understood. Overall observations put forward don’t add up.   

The approach taken by MAAS in recent years, in curating and presenting exhibitions and experiences at the Powerhouse Museum, is considered by many exemplary of a contemporary best practice approach to museology. Lately the exhibition program has offered more bang than we had previously known. Since 2013 visitation has increased by 47%, a sure sign of where things had been, and a growth spurt unmatched by any other gallery or museum in Sydney. Far from facing death threats in acknowledged difficult times, MAAS has been busy presenting, planning and responding to new opportunities. Staff should be congratulated on the vision and energy displayed.

It’s unfortunate that these recent comments also seek to curtail the idea of developing a partnership with the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). Where they occur, partnerships are celebrated and hard fought. They are sought out and negotiated, and most importantly, needed across the sector. Many people see the possibility of a MAAS partnership with UTS as an opportunity, not only to maintain a central Sydney presence, but to strengthen it. An effective working relationship between MAAS and UTS would drive creative practice and innovation, bring in new audiences, enhance the precinct’s character and assist in achieving sustainability. Like many other cultural institutions MAAS has a number of existing partnerships that facilitate research, collaborations, experimentation, audience connection and learning. By working with contemporary practitioners such as artists, designers, architects and technologists of all kinds, galleries and museums benefit from alternative understandings and interpretative skills that are generated and then shared. Sometimes excitement produced by a new vision or partnership is what really drives institutional growth and curatorial capacity. Audience interest moves forward as a result. I for one am keen to hear more about what’s possible.

Finally, according to Winkworth, MAAS collections are currently on the periphery of just about everything that’s going on. Apparently far less objects were acquired in 16 – 17 than in previous years. But if a move is planned, why wouldn’t you collect less? I imagine many other collection management issues are being prioritised and addressed. Peripheral is not a word that I’d use to describe MAAS’s recent understanding and use of its collections. The museum is actively expressing a willingness to embrace and extend the centrality of collections to audience access, new reach, research and engagement. The launch of its interactive online collection database, re-opening of the public access stores at the Museum Discovery Centre, the new Recollect exhibition series, 3D scanning of collection items, and the associated development of augmented reality and virtual reality experiences clearly demonstrate this.

Views expressed in Powerhouse Unplugged seem themselves to be more on the edge of things when compared to where MAAS and museums generally are headed. On the cusp of 2018, it’s time to support the museum (and Sydney Modern) as their new stories unfold.


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