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Are our history museums worth revisiting?

Are our history museums worth revisiting?

By Madeline Gold

It’s a chilly winter morning, and mum and I are meeting up with my grandmother and aunt for a road-trip. On the way to Canberra, a three hour drive from Sydney, we discuss what’s going on in our lives while the red and yellow Australian country drifts past. When we arrive in the city centre, our coats wrapped warmly around us, we enter the National Gallery for the Cartier exhibit. It’s an outing we had been planning for a long time. I marvel at the tiara Kate Middleton wore at her glamorous wedding. The necklace a young Queen Elizabeth wears in her most famous portrait. After three hours of this, we get in our car and travel another three hours home.

 The wonder and excitement stirred up by this blockbuster exhibition in the nation’s capital makes me realise that sometimes people go to great lengths for museums. In 2021, the ‘Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh’ exhibition will come to the Australian Museum; one of the world’s largest, most impressive Egyptian displays. The exhibition is expected to be seenby 800,000 people in 6 months. It’s easy to believe that many people would be willing to make the same effort my family did to see artefacts they usually couldn’t.

 Sydney has a history of massive events that get a lot of people to put in the effort and time to come and see them. The Sydney phenomenon Vivid and the Shakespearean Globe Theatre that came to Sydney are examples of the market that exists in Australia for large-scale events. People wantto leave their homes and to experience something. 

 But if 2 million people are expected to leave the house for Vivid, do they also leave it for Australian history? Sydney has a collection of history museums that, I think, are just as worthwhile as any large-scale event. So I resolved to visit a few of our history museums, and to find out if people are keenly going to history museums with stars in their eyes. And if they aren’t, why not?

 For someone like me, who loves history anyway, I would love to say that in my spare time, I actively seek out history museums to visit. But in reality, I have only been to Hyde Park Barracks once since I was a kid. It’s not something I go out of my way to see. So, if people are so willing to see Vivid,  Tutankhamun, and the Globe Theatre, why are they not also super keen to go to Rouse Hill Farm?

 My questioning led me to the office of Dr Chiara O’Reilly, Director of Museum and Heritage Studies at the University of Sydney who has - along with Dr Anna Lawrenson - just co-authored an excellent book about blockbuster exhibitions in Australia. She said the reason that people aren’t going to museums is that they simply don’t want to. “You go there when you’re at school,” she said, “or you go there when your parents take you when you’re a kid, and the next time you go is when you’ve got kids of your own.” Dr O’Reilly said people in their 20s are “the mythical audience” because that age group is the biggest challenge for cultural institutions. Mainly because we aren’t going with school or our kids, so we really don’t have any reason to go. Theoretically, there is no period in your 20s when you think to yourself ‘today I might go to the Museum of Sydney because I want to deepen my knowledge of Australian history which I could do at any point in my life.’ If Dr O’Reilly is right, learning about Australian history is an educational pursuit, a requirement - not something that’s explored for fun. Which is pretty sad.

 The Tutankhamun legend is something that seemingly everyone learns in primary school and again in high school. Mummies. Sarcophagi. Pyramids. Hieroglyphics. The Ancient Egyptian myth is something everyone is fascinated by at some point. That’s why the prediction for people attending the exhibition is so high. In the past, Egyptian exhibitions have always done well, the same way when the Terracotta Warriors leave China, they’re always a hit. Admittedly there’s something exciting about viewing objects that are thousands of years old, and Australia just doesn’t have the historical prestige that Ancient Egypt or Ancient Chinahas. “When they’ve tried to do blockbusters of Australian art they’ve not been as successful,” said Dr O’Reilly, “they don’t have the same pull… we don’t have grand mythology about Sydney that everyone knows about.” Okay, I get it. Ancient Egypt has thousands of years of history with cool gods and mystical stories, which is why it is mythologised to such a scale. Australian Indigenous history also has those things, but it isn’t glorified in the same way. Maybe we should develop a rich national history that includes something other than the ANZAC legend. Don’t get me wrong, the ANZACs are an incredibly courageous and vital part of our past, but I think there is so much more to learn about this nation that is valuable. As I have grown older, I have begun to wonder why our short history, as a nation seems to preclude us from getting excited and involved and knowledgeable about our past. I wonder how ancient cave-paintings, low-resolution photographs, and yellowed pages filled with difficult to read cursive halt many people from being fascinated by their contents. Myself included, at times.

 Sydney’s Australian Museum has received$50million in grants to upgrade their facilities just for this exhibition - because they know it will make money. Similarly, the University of Sydney is pouring in $40million to open the newChau Chak Wing museum on campus. Surely there is a need for museums in Sydney. Right?

 So, equipped with the reasons people like me wouldn’t go to museums in their free time, I began visiting (I made it to 6 of the 12) Sydney’s history museums - some of them for the first time ever - to see what they could possibly offer someone of my age.

 The focus of my investigation was one of Australia’s most exciting museum bodies - Sydney Living Museums,(SLM) or the Historic Houses Trust of NSW. It’s a trust which the website sayswas established in 1980 which “cares for a group of 12 of the most important historic houses, gardens and museums in NSW on behalf of the people of NSW.” Some of the most prestigious museums and historic houses are owned by this group like Hyde Park Barracks, the Museum of Sydney, and Elizabeth Farm.


 Hyde Park Barracks

 I started at the crown jewel of the Trust. Hyde Park Barracks. It’s on the UNESCO world heritage list. Which is probably why it was closed. For restoration or something. Booooo. It must really need it though because their annual reportsays the Barracks get the most admissions out of all the Sydney Living Museums (SLM) with 221,000 overall admissions last year. I’ve been there a few times, and I would say it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re just starting to look into Australian history. You do get to lie in a hammock bed like the convicts did and make crunching noises on the rust-coloured gravel outside. I would recommend showing up with a loaf of Damper in hand, just to get the full effect. 

 9/10 - only because it was closed.

 The Mint

 The Mint is a delightful little museum. As far as I can tell, you don’t need a ticket to enter. The ‘museum’ portion of the building is a hallway at the back, with little signage to announce its presence, with a simple but effective display recounting the different uses for the building over time. Built in 1816, it used to be called the Rum Hospital because it was paid for in Rum - as was everything in the colony. Rum was seriously a legitimate but also very illegal currency. Then it turned into a Mint, and you get to see some coins that were minted in 1850, which is pretty cool. In the 20th century, it held law courts and government departments. Then it turned into a museum. Obviously.

 9/10 - wish there was even more to see.

 Caroline Simpson Research Collection

 The back portion of the Mint building is now the Caroline Simpson Research Collection, which is listed as a museum on the SLM website, but it’s genuinely just a library about historical plants and architecture in Australia. It was interesting, but I wouldn’t recommend it to people who are unenthusiastic about Australian history. I would recommend it to people who love architecture, because the second story of this tiny research centre has a fantastic amount of exposed brick, what I suppose is the original wood floors, and you also get to see out the window and through to into the old roof. Have a look around. Just don’t disturb the researchers. I love them and they need to be protected. 

 9/10, not even a museum.

 The Sydney Museum

 A short walk from these buildings is the Sydney Museum. It’s built on top of the site of what was meant to be Arthur Philip’s temporary residence upon arrival to the colony. Neither my history-obsessed mother nor I had ever visited before. The museum had tiny scale models of each ship in the First Fleet, which is a really standard museum thing, but everyone goes wild when they see tiny ships. I think it’s built into our DNA. I also learned that my beloved Governor Sir Lachlan Macquarie, who did so much for Sydney’s infrastructure (see The Mint/Rum Hospital), basically decreed it was okay to slaughter Indigenous people. That was incredibly upsetting, but that's what you get when you look into the early colony. You see the atrocities that people committed which shaped the Australia we see today.  I talked about how the Indigenous part of the museum was basically one room with my friend Kayla McGregor-MacDonald, a proud Wiradjuri woman studying a Bachelor of Social Science, majoring in Indigenous Studies and Sociology. She said that ‘"Australia" is only 250 yrs old. Blak people have been here 90 000+ years. Why would you do yourself the disservice of not connecting with the oldest living culture in the world, its on your doorsteps’. She said a transfer of knowledge and sharing of history would probably benefit the museum and museum-goers more than they think. Despite that, the tour guide was really great at making sure she, herself, gave a lot of weight to the Indigenous history of Sydney. I learned who Barangaroo was!! She was a cool lady, she refused to wear European clothes when she met with white people. She’s my new hero.

 11/10, a good museum.

 Susannah Place

 After lunch, the last historic house for the day was Susannah Place Museum. It was built by Irish immigrants in 1844 and is set up to show low-middle class city dwellings. You can only get in as part of a tour group, of which there are three every day. The volunteer tour guide made some pretty funny/horrific jokes about having to bathe in cold water that your twelve siblings had been in before you. I also really liked that three of the houses had sneakily (read: illegally) extended their backyard at some point. It’s just that charming deviance and willingness to be enterprising that tells us something about the larrikin spirit of the lower class. 

 9/10, not enough places for me to sit down.

 Rouse Hill Farm

 Another day, I visited the historic houses in Western Sydney. I started at Rouse Hill Farm. Moving along in a golf cart, weirdly the only person to show up for the 11am tour on a Friday morning after the school holidays had just ended, I told my guide, Alannah, why I was there - to write this article. Alannah said our disinterest in Australian history starts when we’re young. We learn the animals: cow, pig, lion, elephant, giraffe. Sure, we all know what kangaroos and echidnas are, but they’re not the ones every children’s book is about. After this insightful comment, she told me a bit about Rouse Hill Farm. I don’t want to give away the whole game, but there may or may not be a mummified rat on the ceiling of the servant’s quarters.The wooden fences that keep the livestock enclosed are the original fences the Rouse’s put in, some brides understandably pay hundreds of dollars to take wedding pictures in front of a wall with beautiful vines running up it, and Banjo Patterson lived there and kept a racehorse there for a while.

 10/10, felt like I was in an Aussie Jane Austen novel.

 Elizabeth Farm

 Next, I drove to Elizabeth Farm in Parramatta, which was built in 1793, by John Macarthur, only 5 years after white people arrived. I want to preface this with the fact that I do not love John Macarthur. I think he was a bully and an elitist. But the fact that he was sent back to England twice for trying to kill/overthrow two successive governors of the colony has a kind of roguish, likeable quality about it. I decided not to take the tour, so as not to have to talk to any more people, and used the iPad self-tour instead. The story of the Swan family of eleven kids who lived there in the 1900s was also pretty impressive. The girls ran a school for music, business, and English among other things, and one of them was one of Australia’s first representatives to the UN. Every object in the house is not original, but reconstructed, so you’re allowed to touch anything. I took the opportunity to wistfully open the lace curtains and look out the window, wondering when my husband John Macarthur would ever return home to the colony. 

 10/10, would move in tomorrow. 


 It was a lovely day out, strolling through the city to four different museums, or driving through Western Sydney to these preserved homes. In the 2017-2018 year, the SLM reported thatvisitation was up from the year before, with overall visitation and touring exhibits getting 1,348,488 people through the doors. But even though these numbers are seemingly staggering, the SLM still have a whole plan to increase overall visitation by 50% by 2022. There just aren’t enough people showing up for these magnificent historical sites.

 If I were to answer the original question, of whether Sydney museums are worth a revisit, I would 100% say yes they are. After my glowing, gushing report, an average rating of 9.5/10, you would guess my answer would be yes. But my friends Rachel McGrath and Kiara Magnussen, both students at the University of Sydney, reminded me that even if you love museums, visiting them isn’t a top priority. “I’m always thinking I’d love to go to a party, out to dinner with my friends and catch up,” said Kiara, “never ooh I’d love to go to a museum. I wouldn’t mind going back actually… but it isn’t something I’d go out of my way to do.” Rachel said almost exactly the same thing, and that “when I travel I always go to museums. I’ve been to more museums in places I’ve travelled to than in Sydney.” 

 Australia does not have the same novelty or connection to its past that other countries have. Not many people in this country have a favourite figure from the early colony, in the way Americans may idolise Jefferson or Washington. Even though I thought what I learned at these museums was terrific, and my experience was exhilarating, Dr O’Reilly was right: it’s hard to get young people to give up their weekends to visit a museum.


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