It is often said that the winners write history. If this is true, what happens when there is no confrontation? Through what lens will the past be viewed if no lives have been laid down and no fingers are pointing in blame? In Sydney, The Historic Houses Trust of NSW has a solution. They let the homes (and their graphic designers) do the talking.
The Sydney Living Museums are a collection of twelve of the State’s most important historic houses. The new branding has only been in place since last year and if I’m being honest, it was the beautifully designed brochures that convinced me to make room on my social calendar for a date with history. It also didn’t hurt that the museum tour guides were so charming and knowledgeable.
Built in 1844 by Irish immigrants, Susannah Place was continually occupied until 1990. Quite a rarity since most of the original terraces in The Rocks were demolished after the Bubonic Plague outbreak in 1900. While the early settlements were infamous for their slipshod construction, Susannah Place proved that some owners had a bit more foresight. Their sewage lines were connected a good four decades before the outbreak and the city’s take-over of the entire neighborhood.
Susannah Place also miraculously escaped extensive remodeling and renovation. Even after becoming a museum, the crumbling structure has remained a jumbled time capsule of dated refrigerators, metal wash tubs, linoleum, gas lamps, and flaking walls. “We are in the business of preservation,” the guide quickly explained. “We want the building to keep telling its story, so if you break something, it won’t be fixed. Please be careful.”
The three-story terraces were built true to English standards and for the most part were occupied by working-class families. The front door opened onto Gloucester Street, but as was customary during the time, the parlour was only used for receiving guests. Each home only had six rooms (including the kitchen and basement), which meant that a large family might hardly even use a sixth of their house. I couldn’t imagine how crowded that must have been.
Further into town was the Hyde Park Barracks, another property under the care of the Sydney Living Museums. From its completion in 1819 till 1886, the barracks housed a great number of people, most of whom probably had less fond memories than the families of Susannah Place.
The first occupants of the barracks were male convicts. Even the architect himself was a former convict. “He was actually highly recommended to the Governor of Sydney,” one of the museum volunteers advised us. “If he hadn’t have gone to Australia he would have been hung.” She patted the cushioned seat next to her. “Do you have time to spare?”
The next half hour read like a list of famous colonial families whose names are generously sprinkled across the country: the Macquaries, Darlings, and Wentworths. Mary Reibey, one of the convict colony’s incredible successes, came up twice and her story ended both times right before she was to knock on a door.
Like Susannah Place, the emphasis was placed on the historical layers- from the convicts to the barrack’s reincarnation as a female immigration depot (1848), a female infirm and destitute asylum (1862), and courts and government offices (1887). To this end, the rats which tunneled under the floors proved to be the earliest, most thoughtful curators. When the archeologists moved in during the 1980s, they discovered underground warrens filled with odds and ends that helped put together the domestic story of the early occupants.
Although no one lives in these buildings today, they might arguably be their most lived in yet. Cafes, high tea, weddings, food talks, Twitter- the way in which the public interacts with these homes is continually changing. While the term “museum” can feel like the death of a building (silent catacomb-like environment and all), Sydney’s Living Museums feel a bit different. They feel, well, alive.
How to get to Susannah Place: 58-64 Gloucester Street, The Rocks, Sydney (opposite Sydney Harbour YHA)
How to get to the Hyde Park Barracks: Queens Square, Macquarie Street, Sydney
About: Sydney Living Museums