Upcycled – waste not, want not…

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Budget option ‘bush pantry’, improvised using an oil drum, kerosene tins and length of water pipe, unknown maker, about 1930. Powerhouse Museum collection. 92/305

Budget option ‘bush pantry’, improvised using an oil drum, kerosene tins and length of water pipe, unknown maker, about 1930. Powerhouse Museum collection. 92/305

A new display opens at the Powerhouse Museum this week titled ‘Upcycled’, a word coined by German engineer and upcycler, Reiner Pilz in 1994.

‘Recycling? I call it down-cycling. They smash bricks, they smash everything. What we need is upcycling, where old products are given more value, not less.’ (Reiner Pilz: thinking about a green future, Salvo Monthly, No 23, October 1994, p14)


The display features contemporary and historical objects drawn from the Museum’s collection. Highlights include 1905 Cadillac converted to a ‘ute’, a 1910 chair made from cotton reels, fencing wire and garden stakes, the 1930s bush pantry illustrated above, a Depression era rug made from rags (illustrated below), a garden swan made from an old car tyre, a keg converted into the barrel of a washing machine, plastic bag pendant lamp, ‘Priceless Neckpiece’ made of plastic swing tags, and delicate 1920s fashion accessories fashioned from tiny pieces of kid leather cut from outmoded and discarded ladies kid leather gloves.

Rag rug made by tufting strips of material through a knitted string base, made by Elizabeth Nunn in Sydney, around 1939.  Powerhouse Museum collection. Gift of Grace Flinn, 1994. 94/179/1

Rag rug made by tufting strips of material through a knitted string base, made by Elizabeth Nunn in Sydney, around 1939. Powerhouse Museum collection. Gift of Grace Flinn, 1994. 94/179/1

The display also includes a surprising selection of contemporary designs by a new generation of upcyclers motivated by environmental concerns and a desire to reduce waste on the planet.

While developing the display, I kept returning to memories of my childhood as my parents were great upcyclers. The timber packing crate that carried their belongings from Holland to Australia in the 1950s was quickly converted into a chicken coop. This coup provided us with eggs and meat, feathers for bed pillows, chicken manure for the garden, some extra cash when eggs were plentiful, and goods for barter. The transformation of a crate to a coop demonstrates that upcycling is not only practical and environmentally sustainable, but also fiscally expedient – generating profit and preserving hard earned cash for other necessities, luxuries or investments.

I discovered many historically interesting ‘upcycled’ objects in the Powerhouse Museum’s collection. Not all are on display. I’d like to share three of these with you now – the holey dollar and dump of 1813, late 18th and early 19th century convict love tokens, and the Ophir gold cradle of 1851.

Coin, 'Holey dollar', silver, Charles IV, Mexico Mint, 1806 / restruck in New South Wales, 1813. Powerhouse Museum collection. Gift of Australian Museum, 1961. N13996

Coin, ‘Holey dollar’, silver, Charles IV, Mexico Mint, 1806 / restruck in New South Wales, 1813. Powerhouse Museum collection. Gift of Australian Museum, 1961. N13996

When the colony of New South Wales produced its first coinage in 1813 it did so by upcycling existing Spanish dollars into two new coins – the holey dollar and the dump. The value of these two coins was then worth about 25% more than the original coin, and no new metals were harvested during the production phase – a win-win situation in a time of scarce resources.

'Love Token' made from a smoothed George III cartwheel penny dated 1797, illustration of convict engraved in NSW around 1810-1820. Powerhouse Museum collection. 90/730

‘Love Token’ made from a smoothed George III cartwheel penny dated 1797, illustration of convict engraved in NSW around 1810-1820. Powerhouse Museum collection. 90/730

When pennies were converted to convict love tokens, what the pennies lost in monetary value they gained tenfold in personal, historical and emotional value.

: Gold washing cradle, cedar, made by William Tom, Ophir goldfields, NSW, 1851. Gift of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 1970. H8859

Gold washing cradle, cedar, made by William Tom, Ophir goldfields, NSW, 1851. Gift of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 1970. H8859

My third and somewhat surprising final example of colonial Australian upcycling is the Ophir gold cradle made by William Tom in 1851 to instructions provided by Edward Hargraves. The nails embedded in the timbers of this cradle do not relate to the actual construction of the cradle suggesting Tom upcycled pre-used timber off-cuts when building this ‘work horse’. The gold finds which resulted from its inventive construction highlight the economic benefits that can be accrued from astute use of discarded goods and materials.

Upcycled opens on International Women’s Day – Friday 8 March 2013. We hope the display inspires you to think about what you too can upcycle. Designer and TV presenter Kevin McCleod seems to enjoy the process, taking great delight upcycling found objects for his Man Made Home. What do you, or could you, upcycle?

Post by Anne-Marie Van de Ven, Curator

One thought on “Upcycled – waste not, want not…

  1. AMVdV

    ‘Upcycled’ is now closing on 19 July to make way for the ’7 Australian Designers’ display featuring the work of Frances Burke, Gordon Andrews, Clement Meadmore, Grant Featherston, Alistair Morrison, Douglas Snelling and Steven Kalmar which opens on 2 August as part of the 2013 Sydney Design Festival.

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