Two former Powerhouse Museum curators have cast strong doubt on the ability of an 1830s steam engine to be returned to Goulburn.
Andrew Grant and Ian Debenham OAM recently told a State Upper House inquiry into the Museum's management that they would advise against shifting the historic item to the Goulburn Waterworks.
The council has been negotiating with the Powerhouse for many months about the 1837 Maudslay Sons and Field steam engine back to Goulburn. It was moved to Sydney's Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (the Powerhouse) in the 1920s from the Old Goulburn Brewery, where it It powered an industrial complex.
In July, Powerhouse CEO Lisa Havilah told the inquiry that the council's request was still being considered.
But in a late August sitting, Mr Debenham, curator of aviation transport at the Powerhouse from 1980 to 2010, agreed with Shadow Arts Minister Walt Secord that moving the engine would be like a "military exercise."
"...I would just stop the whole thing because it is almost 200 years old," he said.
"It is cast iron and it is extremely fragile. You would have to have a special truck with air suspension to be able to take the bumps out of the road, because there is a risk of shattering the components. You would take the beam out of it, because that is a big heavy weight up high.
"There would probably be some smaller components you would take out and there is always the risk of disturbing some of the components, because these engines were shipped as a sort of kit of parts. They were put together by engineers on site, so there is the level of getting all the different components to relate to one another properly."
Mr Debenham said major parts could have to be relocated and realigned if they were damaged or removed from their position.
"There is a heck of a lot of work to do and, quite frankly, I would have said at an inquiry like this that no, it is too valuable an object because of its historical relationship," he said.
"Henry Maudslay was the father, if you will, of mass production in an engineering sense. One of his apprentices was Joseph Whitworth, who created the Whitworth thread system. It is internationally famous and to put it at any risk at all is just not conscionable. As I say, curators tend to get rather worried about things like this."
Mr Debenham was a research assistant on the Maudslay's reconstruction some 40 years ago.
Mr Grant has 33 years' experience as a curator of the Powerhouse's transport collection until 2010. He is now a volunteer advising on its expert documentation.
He told the inquiry that the possibility of river flooding at The Waterworks was a "very relevant consideration" in deciding whether to loan the Maudslay, which was "of great value and utterly irreplaceable."
"The Maudslay engine is second only in significance to the Boulton and Watt beam engine and is a key steam-powered exhibit in the museum's The Steam Revolution exhibition," he said.
"It is critical to the narrative of that exhibition. Even considering the loan of an object in a long-term exhibition is highly irregular. In terms of assessing the intention to retain the remaining permanent exhibitions at Ultimo it is a canary in the coal mine, if you like."
Mr Grant said if it were moved, "nothing else would be safe" and if the Powerhouse's intentions were to retain the exhibition, "the request would have been "politely but swiftly declined."
The council's manager of marketing, events and culture, Sarah Ruberto, also gave evidence to the inquiry.
Asked by Mr Secord about the delay on a decision, she said the council was "always optimistic" but was in "a holding pattern."
While it had not spoken to Powerhouse management recently, the council believed the move was still on the table pending negotiations about its accommodation and conservation.
In terms of assessing the intention to retain the remaining permanent exhibitions at Ultimo it is a canary in the coal mine.Andrew Grant, former Powerhouse curator
Mrs Ruberto said Goulburn was the Maudslay's "home" and while it started its life at the Old Brewery, it would complement The Waterworks' steam collection. This included the Appleby Beam and Hicks Hargraves engines.
"It is a rare facility," she said.
"It is the only complete water supply left in its original location in the Southern Hemisphere and in council hands. We have staff and volunteers that run the site. We have regular steaming there and so certainly from our perspective, returning the Maudslay to Goulburn to be housed at The Waterworks, it would be in very safe hands."
Afterwards, Mr Secord said the state government should be "honest" with the Goulburn community about the engine's future given what he said was "deeply contradictory evidence."
"Make no mistake, if the Powerhouse Museum's collection is broken up, then the Berejiklian government should return the steam engine to its rightful home in Goulburn," he told The Post.
"But if they have no intention of shifting the steam engine, then they should simply admit this rather than stringing Goulburn along - wasting time, energy and money.
"Put simply, the Maudslay steam engine is as important to the history of Goulburn as the so-called Elgin Marbles are to the Parthenon."
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