About us

Sydney Living Museums cares for a group of 12 of the most important historic houses, gardens and museums in NSW on behalf of the people of NSW.


 

Our purpose is to enrich and revitalise people’s lives with Sydney’s living history, and to hand the precious places in our care and their collections on to future generations to enjoy.

We bring our museums to life through a dynamic and diverse program of exhibitions, research and events such as walks, talks and tours so that our visitors can experience Sydney's past as if they had lived it themselves.

We were established in 1980 as the Historic Houses Trust of NSW to manage, maintain and interpret buildings and places of historic importance for the education and enjoyment of the public. In 2013 we launched our new identity as Sydney Living Museums to refresh and unify our diverse range of properties and highlight our role and relevance for current and future generations.

We are part of the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage within the NSW Department of the Premier and Cabinet.

Our organisation looks like this:

Organisational chart - at top - Minister for heritage, board of trustees, Director - off to the side Office of environment and heritage and premier and cbinet


 

 

 
 


From our beginnings in the 1980s, we have believed in an approach based on ‘careful planning and research rather than striving for short-term success’1, on innovation and creativity underpinned by scholarship, on representing a diversity of histories, and on public access as an integral part of everything we do. In the work of conserving the buildings, landscapes and collections in our care, we rely on a solid foundation of documentary and physical evidence and analysis guided by the highest standards of professional practice. Each of our properties has an individual plan for its conservation and management that embraces the specific qualities, significance and histories of that place and guides our approach and activities there. 

The Trust is conscious that the houses it acquires must reflect both the grand and the humble.
Historic Houses Trust of NSW, 1982​2​​

 
Photo of people looking at one of the rooms in Susannah place museums. It looks relatively run down.
Visitors explore the interiors of Sussahnah Place Museum Photo © Jody Pachniuk for Sydney Living Museums

 

 

OUR HISTORY



 

Our history as an organisation dates back to 1980, when we were established as the Historic Houses Trust of NSW to manage, maintain and interpret buildings and places of historic importance for the education and enjoyment of the public. Since then we have grown from a small organisation responsible for just two properties to a major cultural and research institution.

The 1970s and ’80s were watershed decades for the heritage and conservation movements in Australia. Until then, heritage had largely been the concern of individuals and community groups, with relatively little support from government. But through the 1970s public interest in saving historic buildings and precincts broadened. Around the country, huge protests against the threat of development pushed heritage and conservation issues into the mainstream and onto political agenda, increasing pressure on governments to get involved, both in terms of protecting significant places and ensuring public access to them. At national and state levels governments established a series of heritage Acts and agencies, expanding their involvement and control. This was also a time of enormous change within the history and heritage professions, bringing new attitudes and approaches to conserving and interpreting the past, and entirely new areas of expertise and specialisation.

Early exhibition installed in Elizabeth Bay House, 1981. In our first year, Elizabeth Bay House won the Museum of the Year Award, the first of many awards we have won since then. Sydney Living Museums

 

These were new and eventful times, and they framed our founding as an organisation and shaped our character and philosophy. In the words of our first chairman Peter Stanbury, then director of the Macleay Museum at the University of Sydney, the Trust was ‘anxious to maintain the highest possible standards’ while presenting our properties ‘in a lively and creative way’. In those first years, we were responsible for just two properties – Vaucluse House, the home of explorer and statesman William Wentworth and his family, and Elizabeth Bay House, built in 1835 for ‘gentleman scientist’ and colonial secretary Alexander Macleay, which features one of Australia’s finest Regency style interiors. In our first year 149,721 people came to visit us.

Since then the number and range of properties in our care have grown, along with the diversity and reach of our activities. We have a new name and face a rapidly changing social, economic and technological world. But the words and standards expressed by Peter Stanbury in our first year hold equally true. As does our role as the only government agency in Australia with the specific role of conserving, managing and interpreting house museums.

 

READ THE HISTORIC HOUSES ACT 1980

The establishment of the Trust came out of a growing realisation that the State was the custodian of a steadily expanding number of the finest and most important houses in New South Wales … 

our first chairman Peter Stanbury, 1982Unknown Object​​

 

Our timeline

 

 

Our future

The launch of our new website in January 2014 marks the start of an exciting and significant new chapter for us; it is in a very real way a bridge between our past and our future. As well as presenting a fresh face and making it easier for people to find and access information about our museums and programs, an important aim of the site has been to open up new possibilities for our audiences to participate in what we do and interact with us. At the same time, it has allowed us to dramatically increase the quality, amount and depth of content we can make available beyond the physical limits of our museums. This new platform means that we can bring our stories, places, people and collections to life and to you wherever you may be.

The website is an exciting new adventure for us and our audiences, but it’s just one part of a much broader cycle of restructuring and renewal. For some time we have been taking a very deep and rigorous look at who we are, what we do, what we can do better or differently, how, why. We have consolidated our strengths and are looking to the future with renewed purpose and vitality. We have some wonderful projects underway – a new masterplan for Rouse Hill House & Farm, a new membership program, and the launch of Home & Architecture, a multidimensional program that will provide a unifying focus across all our museums through 2014 – and over the coming months we will be finalising a series of major strategic initiatives that will shape our future into the long-term. So stay tuned … and join in … as we face a bright and exhilarating future.


 
 


Notes

  • 1. Historic Houses Trust of NSW, Annual Report 1981/82, p3.
  • 2. Historic Houses Trust of NSW, Annual Report 1982/83, p5.