Dig a little deeper
I’ve been interested in archaeology since I was young. My grandmother had several shelves of National Geographic magazines that she had been collecting since the 1940s, and I’d often flip through them to find the archaeology articles about World Heritage sites such as Pompeii.
I now work as the curator of the World Heritage listed Hyde Park Barracks Museum and The Mint, where no two days are the same. I’m usually working on at least one special project – at themoment it’s the experiential exhibition about the female Immigration Depot, which was housed at the barracks between 1848 and 1886. We estimate that at least 40,000 young women, newly arrived off the ships, passed through the depot.
We’re inviting visitors to discover some of the fascinating stories of the depot – they can lift the lids of trunks filled with artefacts, read the personal profiles of the women and experience what it feels like to nap on an iron dormitory bed.
The exhibition is for all our visitors to enjoy, but we also want to connect with the descendants of the women who once stayed at the barracks – we know they’re out there.
During excavations of Hyde Park Barracks’ underfloor cavities in 1979–81, archaeologists uncovered over 100,000 artefacts, many of which were left behind by the women of the Immigration Depot. These included incredibly personal items such as clothes, keepsakes, thimbles, jewellery, medicine bottles, toothbrushes and even soap. You find yourself wondering which of these were hidden and which just fell through the floorboards. Curiously, rats and mice saved many of the artefacts, pulling them under the boards for their nests – the barracks was infested with rodents throughout most of its history.
A lot of the artefacts are obviously fragmented and dirty, so it’s important to look at where they were found and what they were found with. That’s what gives them meaning and reveals the personal stories that lie beneath.
For me, the fascination of historical archaeology is seeing how the artefacts correspond with documentation we have about the era. Official ration records say the depot women were given beef, vegetables and bread, but there were also plenty of fruit seeds found in the underfloor spaces. Records are unclear on the location of the depot’s dining hall, but there was a high concentration of fruit seeds, tableware and animal bones found under the southern room on level 2 of the building, so it’s likely the women ate there at some time.
The properties of Sydney Living Museums are such rich sources of stories that it can be hard to know what to explore next. If I had the chance to meet someone from the history of our places, it would be Governor Lachlan Macquarie, whose plan to civilise Sydney resulted in the construction of Hyde Park Barracks and the Rum Hospital (The Mint). More personally though, it would be my great-great-great-grandfather James Gough.
He was a convict builder who was overseer of carpenters at the lumberyard and worked on the re-roofing of the Supreme Courthouse and extensions to Old Government House, Parramatta. He was sent to Cockatoo Island in 1841 – suspected of stealing a cow – but was let off and transferred to Hyde Park Barracks. He received his absolute pardon on 8 March 1842.
Recently added stories
Reviving Vaucluse House
Curator Jo Nicholas writes about two significant projects that have come to fruition at Vaucluse House: The drawing room refurbishment that has drawn upon authentic sources and traditional trades, and the redesigned orientation room, enhancing visitors’ understanding of the site’s complex history.
If these walls could talk: Hyde Park Barracks Museum
One of the most significant convict sites in the world, the UNESCO World Heritage listed Hyde Park Barracks was converted into Sydney’s female Immigration Depot in 1848, temporarily housing an estimated 40,000 women during its 38-year history. The barracks holds evidence of these former occupants in its walls, floors and ceilings.
Demolished: First Government House
Built on a prominent rise overlooking Sydney Cove, first Government House served as the official residence and administrative office for the first nine governors of New South Wales. But less than 60 years after Governor Phillip ordered its construction, the future of the significant sandstone and brick structure was in jeopardy.
The eloquent silence of an old piano
One of Sydney Living Museums’ pianos is almost 200 years old and has not been played since at least the 1960s. We ask Bronwen Griffin, musical instrument conservator, and Professor Neal Peres Da Costa, historical keyboardist, for their thoughts on the piano’s future care.