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Access all areas – Powerhouse Discovery Centre case study

Christopher Snelling, Powerhouse Museum, 14 May 2010

JOANNE BACH: Our next session following on from the discussions this morning about the very different streams of collection management is talking specifically about issues surrounding collection access.

Our first speaker is Christopher Snelling. Christopher joined the Powerhouse in September 2006 as project manager of the Powerhouse Discovery Centre Collection Stores at Castle Hill – there is a snappy title. Christopher worked on all aspects of transforming what was a working storage facility into a publicly accessible facility, and he is going to talk to us about that project today.

CHRISTOPHER SNELLING: Good morning and thanks everyone for the opportunity to speak today. I should start off by declaring that I am not a curator, I am not a conservator, I am not an archivist, I am not a registrar – I guess I am a museum manager but I am also a marketing person, I hate to say it, by career. I have worked in museums for quite a long time but more in the marketing area. I guess what intrigued me about this project was that it was a completely new project, and for me that was really exciting, but it was also about public access. I have been very passionate about museums and public access for a long time.

We have been open a bit more than three years now. I thought I would take you a little bit of history about the site, then talk to you a bit about what some of what I did in terms of the business model for opening to the public, and touch on a couple of the programs we currently run. Then I will give a reflection on what I think are some of the successes we have had in the past three years but also what are some of the things you need to think about that have been challenges for us, some of which we have solved and some of which I don’t think we can solve necessarily because of some of the constraints of the existing site.

What are we? We are the off-site storage and collection care facility. It is important that the word ‘collection care’ because part of the programs we run and part of the experience of visitors is very much focused on that.

The Powerhouse Museum purchased the site at Castle Hill – I don’t know if everyone knows Castle Hill; it’s about 35 minutes out of the city of Sydney in the north-west – in the 1940s. It was first a plantation for oil research into eucalypts for close to 30 years. Those photos [images shown] show the plantation on the left and the distillery on the right from the late 1940s and early 1950s. Then from the 1970s the museum started looking at the site more for storage, so that gives you a bit of a time line on how the site unfolded in terms of storage but I also have a map that shows it a bit better. You can see that 2004 and 2005 is the period when a large consolidated effort went into moving a large part of the collection from mostly rented storage in the city out to Castle Hill. It was called the Path project, but one of the staff also told me yesterday that they wanted to call it the bitch project – I was told I had to throw in this joke – which stood for Bringing It To Castle Hill. But in the end the museum decided to go with the Path project.

This is the site map at the moment [map shown]. The first orange buildings are the 1970s-80s portion of converting buildings and storage facilities. Then in around 2000 the first of the very new buildings was built, and then 2003 and 2004, the two other large buildings. The display store is the building I will focus on mostly, which is the purpose-built public access building.

[Image shown] That shows the interior of one of the very large storage buildings, the largest one on site. This is at the beginning of the fit-out for collection storage. That is a more recent shot, although it’s not the most recent shot; it’s probably about two years old now.

[Image shown] This is the display store, the purpose-built public building. It is the first building you approach when you enter the site. You can see that it does have quite an industrial feel. One of the things that I was very passionate about with the project was not about building a mini Powerhouse in north-west Sydney; it was about a different experience so that people doesn’t lose the sense of being in a storage facility and some of the rawness, I guess, of the collection storage ambience.

[Image shown] This is the main foyer that you come into, which is probably the only large open space we have to work with at the moment for the public. On the wall there are some large banners that give a sense of the behind-the-scenes areas, some of which you can’t go into it. The black showcases in the foyer on the right talk about the early history of the site and some of the oil research project.

[Image shown] This is the large downstairs exhibition gallery space which is dedicated to transport. Jennifer [Sanders] mentioned that one of the approaches to the choice of objects here was to look at objects of local, state and in some cases national and international significance. One of the things about the visitor experience here, which was touched on in the previous session, is that it is not a linear experience. When you get upstairs it is thematic but it is very much about people discovering the stories about the objects and making their own decision about their own journey through the space.

[Image shown] This is upstairs. You can see there are banks of drawer and shelf units. All the drawers can be opened. They have been themed. I think the bank in the foreground is agriculture so you have drawers that deal with collection objects from that era. And I think the right-hand bank of drawers has war samples in it, which also Jennifer touched on. That shows one of the drawers [image shown]. There are close to 200 drawers, and each drawer has been fitted out by the conservation team to take the specific objects that have been selected.

A little bit about what some of the aims and objectives were for the project:

To create a public presence in western Sydney was very important to the museum and to extend access to the collection. I touched on before about creating a new visitor experience model. I looked a lot around the world using the net to try to find comparable experiences, and three years ago there were not a lot of models. There were some mostly in the US and a couple in the UK. There are more popping up all the time. It was trying to make sure that the experience touched on the fact that you were in a storage facility but also had that sort of raw, directness to the collection.

To achieve 40,000 visitors by the end of 2009. I am happy to say when I did the statistics the other day that we are at about 52,000 or 53,000 now, which is pretty good.

Maintain a significant percentage of western Sydney based visitors. At the moment it is about 62 per cent, which is very good. Quite a large percentage of our visitors are school children, and because of our location it is very economically cost effective for schools in western Sydney to visit us.

Develop a range of specialist visits and programs, which I will touch on, and also arrange a range of special events that draw on aspects of the collection.

I did a big SWOT analysis before we finalised the business model, which was an interesting process to go through. Because I was new to the Powerhouse it was an opportunity to get some internal and external stakeholders around the table and try to analyse what we thought would feed into the business model. One advantage I had is that I lived in western Sydney, so I knew quite a lot about the location and what its pros and cons would be.

[Slide shown] This might be a bit small and I won’t read them all but I might just touch on a few of them. One of the things that I investigated was that there wasn’t a lot of competing cultural/museum attractions in the area. Rouse Hill House was probably the closest one we had. So I thought there was a strength to use the Powerhouse brand and name and extend that. That was very important.

The relevance to the local area – I thought the history of the site with the plantation and all that was very interesting, which added another dimension to what we could talk about.

Day one working from the Powerhouse I had been sitting at an empty desk trying to log into my computer and within 10 minutes on day one the phone rang and it was the economic development coordinator from the local council in Baulkham Hills ringing to introduce herself. I thought it was interesting that was my first phone call – so support of local council has been really important for us and has grown and grown. I will touch on that a bit later.

Location – highly visible area in terms of where we are and the intersection we are on. But there are also some negatives to that. The residential growth in the area is very high.

Some of the weaknesses: we have really bad public transport; we rely on buses; and they tend to change the buses and the timetables quite a lot. I am sure people know about the failed north-west rail link. That would be really good for us.

I put in remoteness of site from the main museum. It is really about an operational issue. We sometimes talk about being a bit like the stagecoach waiting for the mail to arrive. It can be frustrating at times.

Limited comparable business models – I touched on that.

I put reliance on volunteer support, and you might wonder why I am saying that’s a negative – only in the sense that we only have four staff. I have 56 fantastic volunteers who are really, really important to delivering the programs we offer, but there is a strong reliance on volunteer delivery. So from my point of view that at times can be challenging.

We don’t have a café or food facilities and we get asked that all the time. We have come up with one solution to that.

Some of the opportunities: creating a destination in the local Hills area, which we saw as being a really good thing; the opportunity to build on the knowledge and expertise of the museum; increase awareness of the museum’s collection and hopefully that would spur more interest in people being interested in supporting the collection. Since we opened three years ago, collection donation inquiries have gone up 400 per cent – I said ‘inquiries’ not ‘acquisitions’, which has been a bit hard for us to manage because there is a bit of perception with the public that all the inquiries should come to us and not the main museum. We do a lot of fielding and forwarding on of inquiries. That’s a good thing, but it is also challenging for the curators to respond to all the inquiries.

The last one I will touch on about being a hub for regional New South Wales activities. We work quite a lot with the regional services area of the museum and have staged quite a lot of programs at Castle Hill for regional audience. Being able to get right off the M7 and literally we’re about two kilometres from the exit is really handy.

Lastly on threats: obviously the potential that public access could have on the collection over time. There is a proposed T-way that may be very detrimental to our entry points to the site. What’s going to happen with the TAFE site next door to us because we do have access through their site through a driveway. Obviously if there are more and more cultural competitors in the marketplace. And obviously my volunteers, who are an important resource, potentially replacing them over time.

A bit about the business model we established: we open Tuesday to Friday. During the week we don’t encourage drop-in visitors. We don’t turn them away but we really run as a booked group facility during the week. At the moment our business is split about 65 per cent school groups and 35 per cent mostly seniors during the week, with a mixture of some specialist groups such as historical societies. We had the bus and tramway society yesterday. That’s kind of the mixture.

It is interesting that school groups is actually on the rise for us, and at the moment the seniors audience has been going down a bit. I think that’s a bit of a post GFC [global financial crisis] discretionary income issue and I am hoping that is only a short-term glitch. We open one Saturday of the month ten months of the year, and then we open for casual family visits during the school holidays.

We run tours of the main building, the display store, and those are either self-guided or hosted by volunteers. We have slightly different price points about how we run those. We also offer a simple morning tea package for seniors groups, which gets a little bit around the no café issue. We are currently developing some theme tours in the main building. Not a lot of the objects in the main display store change, so what we are trying to do is find new ways to tell new stories. We have been working with a group of my volunteers to develop some theme tours of the main building as opposed to a general tour. At the moment we are developing one on transport, another around nostalgia, and the third one, the unseen spirit, is an idea from a volunteer about in-depth stories about people behind certain objects in the collection, which I think is a really nice approach.

Then we offer some access for supervised small groups into some of the other stores. They range from a site tour, which is a glimpse behind the scenes, even though somebody said we should get rid of that word and maybe we should; a more focused behind-the-scenes visit; and then a collection focus visit is actually an in-depth visit with a curator, so those require quite a lot of logistics to set up.

At the moment public access to pretty much limited to those two buildings [map shown]. We are in the process of doing some more fit-out to include the very large building that I showed at the beginning but at the moment it will only be the lower level. We don’t have a lift in the large building to the upper level, so from a disability access point of view that creates a bit of a challenge for us.

A bit behind the scenes: this is one of the areas that we do provide supervised access to [image shown]. This floor of the building next to the main building includes the furniture collection, downstairs is the car collection which is hugely popular, and the Olympic Games collection. We are coming up to the tenth anniversary in September and we’re doing a range of special programs around that. That is an example of a small group of visitors for the car tour [image shown].

School holidays – we very much use the theory that we build all programs around the collection. This was last year in April where we did a whole gipsy-themed holiday program – this is Madam Zelda [image shown] – built all around the gipsy caravan that was recently donated to the museum by Jack Thompson. We always try to use the collections as a starting point.

We develop specific talks about objects. The reason I chose this one [image shown] is that I have a volunteer who has invested a lot of time in a talk called ‘decoding Harry’. It’s a 15-minute talk. She just doesn’t talk about the history of Harry, she talks about every piece of advertising on there. She talks about: Harry is the underdog; Pepsi is the underdog to Coca Cola; the ‘do the right thing’ sticker, which is on the side that you can’t see, and how that was a very important campaign in Australia. It’s a really interesting way of taking not just a basic story about an object but really researching it to the point of becoming quite an intriguing experience for visitors. This is the Stanfield mousetrap making machine, again an amazing object that everyone absolutely loves. We have spent quite a lot of time developing kids programs and talks around that.

I mentioned that we do work with the regional services division. We have done a recent event for the Australian dress register. We have done paper and textile preservation and conservation workshops. We have run a few things called conservators’ advice banks, a bit like Antiques Roadshow, where we allow people to bring in objects but it’s about conservation not valuation. We have also done some workshops for volunteers in other organisations.

We do special events [image shown]. Seniors Week is on the left. We do tours and talks about the music collection, including some performances on pianos. Then on the right we did a stencil art workshop for kids for Youth Week. [Images shown[ Here are events in NAIDOC Week and History Week. We are developing an event for later this year around the Doulton collection – we have a very big collection of Doulton ceramics – called ‘a date with Doulton’ which will be an in-depth lecture about the collection with the museum’s curator of ceramics followed by high tea. That should work out really well. And I am hoping to bring the young blood designer markets, which the Powerhouse does in the city, out to Castle Hill.

Some key learnings from the project for me: the first thing, and I don’t know who it applies to here, is that if you are dealing with an existing site, which I was, the first thing is to do a good risk assessment to understand what levels of public access you can sustain on the site and where those can occur. From my point of view, trying to create storage areas that include a mixture of public and non-public, so you may have part of the area for the public and part not for me works best. People love going behind the scenes. They think they are the only group that has ever done it. There is a wow factor. Every time we take a group in to see the Olympic Games costumes, they think they’re the first group that has ever gone in there. I do think that mixture as opposed to saying, ’This is a building for the public and this is the building not,’ if you can try to find a way to have mixed access, I think it would work better. But you need to clearly define the difference between what is public and what isn’t.

Ensuring appropriate site infrastructure and facilities for public access – I can’t say toilets enough. When you are dealing with school groups, there must be people here who have dealt with public programs and schoolkids, you can never have enough toilets. We have just been granted capital works money to build a new external toilet block because we are not coping with the toilet issue. If it takes 25 minutes to toilet kids before the program starts, it doesn’t work. Presentation rooms and assembly areas where are they going to put their school bags and where are they going to put their lunches so they don’t get hot. All these things you don’t always think about.

Establish site capacities and protocols so you don’t jeopardise the safety of the collection is really important. The next one sort of touches on what we have talked about this morning. Maybe it’s me – I feel like a broker in the museum – but you have to have everyone on board. You can’t have conservation on board and registration not on board, because I know there are times where conservation is the boss and then the next day registration is the boss – it just doesn’t work. You have to try to develop a way to get everyone on board, everyone in support of what you are trying to do about public access, otherwise it won’t work.

Establish guidelines for how you are going to run behind the scenes tours to ensure both safety of the collection and visitors. We have a maximum of 20 people per group, and normally a minimum of one staff member and two volunteers is how we run those. We have certain areas of the building roped off so the groups have to stay together. People can’t wander off. It works pretty well.

Successes: I mentioned 52,000 visitors. We launched seven school programs so far and we use the education collection, which Jennifer touched on, which are objects that have been either de-accessioned or donated specifically for use by the public so all our schools program have hands-on aspects to them. I have brought information on our school programs if anyone is interested.

We have built really good strategic relationships with local council and key stakeholders. I am part of the Communities New South Wales Western Sydney Cluster Group and we are working on a special project at the moment. We won a couple of awards in 2008, which is pretty good considering we had only been open for a year, for community contribution and customer service and we were a finalist for business of the year so I was pretty impressed with that.

We have our own sponsor for the Discovery Centre and we have had that for four years. That is really good and I am hoping that will continue. I mentioned that we are extending access into an additional store. We are always trying to look for new interesting ways to expand our special events program and target specific audiences and work on professional development.

I am building a business case at the moment for a major annual weekend event at the Discovery Centre. I am hoping to expand the program to include tertiary, which we are not doing at the moment. We are in the process of redrafting a master plan for the whole site hopefully to upgrade the remaining old 1970s buildings down the back of the site, so hopefully that may come off. And that’s it. Thank you.

Date published: 10 June 2010