One hundred and three years ago, 20 steam powered pumping engines, located in 8 pump stations, began pumping water 560 km uphill from the mountain range east of Perth, Western Australia to the arid goldfields of Kalgoorlie. It was an engineering feat unparalleled in Australian history. It was, and as far as we are aware remains, the longest freshwater pipeline in the world.
Today water is still pumped to the goldfields but some of the significant original infrastructure has been entrusted to the care of the National Trust of Australia (WA). The Golden Pipeline is one of the largest heritage sites in the world. It stretches over 560 km and incorporates artefacts as diverse as pump stations, remnant timber pipes lying in the desert sand, abandoned workers communities and the collective memories of a project to which almost every Western Australian in connected.
This diversity of object and location demanded that interpretation be given a high priority with diverse techniques including a drive trail and companion guidebook, walking trails, signage and cell phone "radio scripts" being used along the 650 kms.
The realities of tourism and the need for long term sustainability dictated that major attention be focussed on the largest artefact located closest to the major population centre of Perth. The iconic No 1 Pump Station, located at Mundaring Weir, the scheme's water source, together with its boilers, remaining engine and other accoutrements, was to be interpreted and a site-specific museum inserted into the building.
Two theoretical constructs, each informed by the need to balance authenticity with sustainability, guided both the physical design of spaces and exhibitions as well as the curatorial framework within which the project was set.
The first involved attempting to reconcile two essentially contradictory concepts - the concept of the building as an artefact in its own right and the concept of the building as a container. The second construct relates to the development of interpretation and visitor experiences as ls"dialogic', presenting the place as a space for public discourse and inviting the visitor to share the excitement of thinking about, and contributing to, the past, the present and the future.
Entry to No 1 Pump Station, with its immersive soundscape, prepares the visitor for the experiences to come. A fibre optic cable set into the floor traces the route of the original pipeline with lights representing the eight pump stations. It culminates in a fountain, an abstracted representation of the standpipe where water arrived in Kalgoorlie.
By leaving the walls free of graphic panels and removing all extraneous material from the spaces in the pump station, the building itself and the machinery within it can be better viewed and understood. Various elements of the building are labelled with simple text, encouraging visitors to read the building and imagine its stories. In this way visitors are encouraged to make connections between the machinery, the building and then the rest of the weir precinct - all are intimately connected.
The major "story telling" exhibition is housed in the Engine House which originally housed three pump engines. Today only one remains, the other two being removed many years ago.
The space left vacant by the removal of the middle engine has been left as a void, echoing the loss. A mesh floor enables visitors to walk over the void and see the space below while above, the story of the scheme's construction is told on a projection screen suspended from the gantry crane.
A machine of a very different type now occupies the space once occupied by the third engine. This "Interpretation Machine", which is the same size and volume of the original machine, tells stories. On the south side are the stories of the original scheme's construction. On the north side a pumping interactive demonstrates the original scheme's daring simplicity. This is then compared with the current, expanded scheme. Inside the machine are the stories behind the scheme.
On one side, the need for the scheme, the eastward movement of people to the goldfields and the diminishing availability of water there, is told through photographs and memories. On the other side are the stories of the engineers and politicians behind the scheme as well as the triumphs and tragedies which occurred when their two worlds collided.
The project's success is rooted in the highly collaborative approach adopted, where curatorial, design, manufacturing and ownership participants were involved at all stages and across all normal boundaries of such a project.
The focus of the underlying story is also sharpened by the global water debate. Working in partnership with the Water Corporation, who continues to operate the scheme, and the local government authorities that are its beneficiaries ensured direct connections between the story and people's current lives. These connections were enriched by the contributions of many who either worked on the water scheme or whose families were intimately connected with it. Many of these contributions are continuing through the volunteer programme at No 1 Pump Station.
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