The Powerhouse Museum was established in 1988 and, as its name suggests, its collections are housed in a re -adapted powerhouse.

These collections have been shaped by a number of significant donors over the past 140 years including Julian Edmund Tenison-Wood (1892-1889) who was an English Catholic priest and geologist. In 1863, he was invited by his friend and governor of Singapore, Sir Frederick Weld, to undertake a scientific tour In the Straits Settlements. He also travelled extensively to Java and adjacent islands and the Philippines, as well as China and Japan, returning to Sydney with many items. Another generous donor was Christian Rowe-Thornett (1892-1889) who was from a wealthy, philanthropic family with a passion for collecting decorative arts including Asian objects which have contributed to the museum’s collection.

A dehua statue of the Chinese goddess Guanyin

Guanyin Standing on a Wave. Dehua porcelain c. 1600s, signed He Chao Zong, Dehua, Fujian Province, China

The Powerhouse Museum holds extensive Chinese collections of ceramics, bronze ware, lacquer ware carvings in jade and ivory, textiles, dress and dress accessories.

One special ceramic example is a beautiful and lustrous, figure of Guanyin-the Goddess of Mercy Standing on a Wave, a very popular deity with the Chinese. She is also known as Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva. Her smooth and sinuous form exemplifies Dehua porcelain (known as blanc-de-chine in the West) and was made around the early 1600s (Ming Dynasty) in Fujian Province, perhaps often regarded as the peak of Dehua production.

The artist is He Chaozong. A named artist is quite unusual in Chinese ceramics and it can be noted that Dehua was one of few production centres where artists signed their names. Many of these pieces were exported, particularly porcelain figures of Buddhist deities.

The Powerhouse’s early Southeast Asian ceramic collection has been acquired from the Sydney International Exhibition (1879) and notable collector, Alistair Morrison, who spent many years living in Asia. It includes earthenware pots and jars collected from Cambodia (Khmer), notably an incised, glazed storage jar from the 12th century as well as ceramic works from Sawankhalok, Thailand, ranging from the 14th to 15th centuries. Such sturdy vessels speak of simplicity of form and function while deep brownish -black underglaze glossy glazes underline their beauty.

A spectacular 14th century piece from the Thai Sawankhalok collection is an earthenware roof ornament in the form of a scaly Naga or Singha. (For more on Sawankhalok ceramics, click here.)

The Naga or sea serpent is a very popular motif often seen on temple roof tops. Nagas are described as the powerful splendid and semidivine race that can assume their physical form as human, partial human-serpent or the whole serpent that reside in the netherworld. Nagas have been important in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jain rituals for at least 2000 years in Southeast Asia.

Another key piece from the collection is an Annamese- made porcelaneous stoneware bottle with silver inlay decoration at the neck, c. 1400.

Roof ornament of Naga or a Singha. Earthenware, Sawankhalok, Thailand,14th century

Storage Jar. Earthenware incised and glazed jar, Khmer, Cambodia 1100-1200 CE

A recent generous donation from Dr John Yu of various earthenware kendi from Indonesia, Java, Malaysia and South India add to exemplifying the technique and skill of these makers.

Currently, there is a major exhibition, Clay Dynasty, which runs until January,2023. It showcases studio pottery by three generations of Australian ceramicists. Stemming from English studio potter, Bernard Leach (1887-1979), who found inspiration in traditional East Asian stoneware and pre-Industrial ceramics which in turn influenced Australian potters beginning just after World War 11, but especially from the 1960s onwards. Significant Japanese potters such as Shoji Hamada (1894-1978), Shigeo Shiga (1928-2011) and Hiroe Swen (b.1934-) visited Australia and in some cases, stayed, influencing local potters. The Australian potters who studied in Asia returned with their findings and then adopted local materials, colours and glazes which reflected the characteristic Australian environment to produce distinctive pottery.

Please do check the website before visiting to see what is currently on display.

A special thanks to the Curator of Asian Art, Min-Jung Kim, Chloe Appleby and Harry Ree. All photographs are courtesy of the Powerhouse Museum (Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences)


Kerr, Rose and Ayers, John, Blanc de Chine Porcelain from Dehua, Landmark Books, Singapore 2002

Kim, Min -Jung, Chinese Collections at MAAS, February 18, 2015.

Contributed by Margaret White, VP TAASA, SEACS Life Member