Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo Sydney

One Last Look at the Powerhouse Museum.

“I know as much as you do” says the Staff member showing us around the Powerhouse Museum. A few days ago, the State Government announced that The Sydney Powerhouse Museum is staying. In what form is anyone’s guess.

Rumour has it that the Ultimo site will focus on fashion and design while the new museum at Parramatta will become a science and technology hub.

Linear Exhibition
Hunting from a Ute (in the Linear Exhibition)

What’s in Store Exhibit

Before joining a guided walkthrough of the museum, I visit the ‘What’s in Store’ exhibition. Here I discover new facts about early shopping in Australia.

Did you know that until 1906 opium was legal and sold over the counter? And that Bushells Tea is one of Australia’s earliest and most successful brands? That certainly explains the Bushells ‘ghost’ signs I’ve encountered when exploring suburban Sydney.

Shopping has Changed

Once shopping was ‘a necessity’. People only bought what they needed. Then in the 1800s it ‘became a form of entertainment’. It still is for many today.

Shops changed over time. Instead of stock randomly arranged on shelves and on the floor in a General Store, newer larger stores known as Department Stores organised their goods into ‘departments’ often over several levels.

Women (in those days it usually was the woman) would buy half a pound of flour which the shopkeeper carefully measured into a brown paper bag. Today, while ready packaged kilos of flour line supermarket shelves, some people are returning to buying staples like flour from bulk food stores.  

Walking Through the Powerhouse Museum

I walk to the meeting place for the ‘walkthrough’. Another visitor, John, waits with me. He caught the train from Goulburn early this morning and will return home tonight. An ex-train driver, he wants to farewell the museum before it changes.

Steam driven train engine
Wheel of Locomotive 1

Old Passenger Carriages from early 1900s
Passenger Carriages

Dressed in the black uniform of Powerhouse staff, our softly spoken guide manages expectations by telling us is she’s ‘not a guide’ but has good knowledge of the exhibits. She asks whether we’d like to see Space, Transport or Steam. The birthday boy in the group chooses Space.

The Steam Revolution

“We’ll get there” says our guide (she didn’t offer her name), “but first we’ll take a look at Steam”. Having last visited the permanent exhibitions many years ago, having someone point out salient features and provide snippets of information makes this visit more memorable.

Locomotive 1

The little boys in our group exclaim at the wheels of Locomotive 1, the first steam engine to pull passenger cars in New South Wales. Believed to be the only known example of its type in the world, its wheels are bright and shiny. They would have been coated in grime and coal dust when travelling from Sydney to Parramatta in 1863.

Gantry Crane in Ultimo Powerhouse
Overhead Cranes

Steam Revolution
The Steam Exhibition

Taking its name from its location in the former Ultimo Power Station, the Powerhouse Museum houses the oldest operational rotative steam engine in the world. Dating from1785, it is one of only three remaining built by Boulton and Watt.

The Steam Engines do Work

Our guide explains why it’s not working today.  “Our engineer had a knee replacement” she says. Other steam engines are also operational, but won’t be working until the engineer returns with his new knee.

Overhead, large original travelling gantry cranes stand silently above the cavernous hall which houses the eleven steam engines in the Steam Revolution Exhibition. The cranes and engines are clean and shiny.

Steam driven fire engine
Horse Pulled Steam Fire Engine

Steam powered
Not working today

When operating as a power station, the large spacious building would be hot, noisy and dirty, filled with workers calling out while operating engines and stoking coal. I close my eyes trying to imagine the scene.

There’s a lot to take in and much goes straight over my head. Words like parallel motion mechanism, piston and sun and planet gear are not part of my regular vocabulary. 

How Things have Changed

Pointing to a large printing press, our guide reminds the children in our group of the printer they may have at home, joking “how would you like to have one of those in your spare room, kids?” 

Early Printing Press
Printing Press Powered by Steam

She indicates an open box with large screws displayed side by side. Screws used to be individually handcrafted, each one unique. Today we go to the hardware store and buy a bunch of identical machine-made screws for our home maintenance projects.

Going up into Space

Leaving the Steam Revolution, we move on to Space. Here the prototype space shuttle and habitation module help us imagine the daily lives of astronauts in the International Space Station.

Space Shuttle Prototypes
More Space Craft

What is it like in Space?

Questions like how they sleep, what they eat and even how they cut their hair in zero-gravity are answered. As is the question many are too embarrassed to ask – how do astronauts manage toileting and personal hygiene.

Space exhibition Powerhouse Museum
Could you live in Space?

How to go to the toilet in space
Necessary for toileting in Space

Unfortunately, being a confined space, the zero-gravity space lab is off-limits during this time of social-distancing, but there’s plenty more to see. Models of satellites and other spacecraft hang from the ceiling. The Soviet space suite attracts the boys’ attention.

More Powerhouse Heritage

Time marches on. We have a quick look at the huge Catalina flying boat which in 1951 was the first plane to fly across the Pacific Ocean from Sydney to Chile.

Suspended from the roof, the Catalina dwarfs the nearby canvas and plywood plane which provided the first airmail service between Melbourne and Sydney. I realise how far engineering and design has come in just a few years.

Central Railway Station Destination Board

The original Central Railway Station Destination Board dominates the back wall. Moved to its current location in the 1980s, it is permanently set at 4pm on a Sunday in 1937. Passengers arriving at 4pm can read which platform their train will leave from and at what time. My train to Hawkesbury River will leave in 20 minutes from Platform 3.

Central Station Destination Board in Powerhouse
Central Station Destination Board

Train Destination Board from Central Station now in Powerhouse Museum
When Does Your Train Leave?

Before leaving us, our guide points out the steam locomotive number 1243 which steamed itself into position many years ago.  

Recycle and Reuse

I walk through the exhibit on ecologic sustainable future design reading how good design reduces the use of materials in a product and how we can recycle used materials.

Eco exhibition on reducing and recylcing
Reduce and Recycle

Metal from a crushed car can be recycled.
Once was a car

A red car crushed into a rectangular ‘cube’ illustrates how metal from a car can be recycled into steel rods using considerably less energy than was first needed to make the original steel.  

Linear Exhibit

Linear, the temporary exhibition (to 31 December 2020) by Aboriginal Artists from across Australia, engages me immediately. Artworks using traditional weaving, and painting methods mingle with more contemporary designs.

Lin Onus, a Yorta Yorta painter, sculptor and activist writes how for $4.00, “a man in Queensland who is not even an Australian” holds the copyright to the design of the boomerang. “I suppose it is possible that [….] he could [….] tell everyone in Australia to stop making boomerangs” he says.

Spears make a stunning artwork in Linear Powerhouse Museum
By Bernard Singleton

Linear is worth a visit at the Powerhouse
The Linear Exhibition

There are beautiful bark paintings and woven works and a particularly striking work of hunting spears. A series of four colourful paintings depicting hunting from the back of a ute make me smile.

There’s so much more to the Powerhouse

An announcement over the PA breaks into my thoughts. The session is ending and I must make my way to the exit. I leave planning to bring my three-year-old grandson to see the heritage display before things change at The Powerhouse Museum.

Useful Information

  • The Powerhouse Museum has reopened its doors with adjustments for social distancing.
  • Visitors must book online for one of three two-hour sessions offered per day.
  • Tickets offer general admission with a walkthrough as an optional extra. There is currently no admission charge
  • Plan your trip at transportnsw.info
  • If you come by train you may enjoy the walk along The Goods Line from Central Station


  1. Thanks Joanne. We should take four year old Benji too but I wonder whether the social distancing detracts from the experience. Would a little boy still find enough to enjoy without the tactile experience?

    1. Author

      I’ve been wondering that myself, Manuela. I’d like to take our little one but it’s definitely look don’t touch. There’s plenty of colour and lots to talk about and certainly the ‘big things’ are pretty awesome for an under 5yr old. I’d take him even if it’s just an independent walkthrough – then the Goods line walk will finish it off nicely.

  2. Haven’t been there for years. On my next Sydney trip, I may go for a visit. And enjoyed the Central Station post as well. Will look for the bullet hole next time I’m there!

    1. Author

      I wonder what you’ll think of the bullet hole, Erica. Did I find it or did I find a chip in the wall?

  3. Hi Joanne, I’m afraid your information about the Catalina flight was not correct – it happened in 1951. I remember it happening, and wouldn’t remember 1944.

    1. Author

      Thank you for putting me right, Kate. I have corrected the information.

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