Lighting the lamps at Rouse Hill House

 

Understanding a house museum as its original inhabitants knew it is often difficult, especially when it comes to everyday services like lighting and heating. 

In winter the fireplaces at some of our properties can be lit, such as at Elizabeth Farm or Elizabeth Bay House, but the need for doors to be kept open for visitors inevitably makes them feel cold and often drafty. It’s the same with lighting, which is often a balancing act between the visitor experience, historic authenticity and modern conservation requirements.

At Rouse Hill House the day-to-day lighting levels are tightly controlled; most of the shutters are kept closed to ensure that the ultraviolet component of the daylight spectrum is excluded, and many rooms are quite dark as a result. We use museum grade up-lights, which provide a soft, ambient light that contains no UV, but this is still far below what we would expect in a modern domestic interior.

Until gas and then electricity became common, domestic interiors like Rouse Hill House's were lit by candles and lamps burning oils or, from the 1860s onwards, more commonly kerosene.  A rural property, Rouse Hill House wasn’t connected to the mains electricity grid till late in 1962. Some limited electricity before that was provided by generators which powered lights. The ceilings, onto which the wiring would be attached as the house was retrofitted, are still marked with years of earlier smoke stains and are a poignant reminder of past lives.    

At night 19th century interiors were rarely seen in their entirety, but lit in ‘puddles’ of light provided by various light sources, sometimes just a solitary lamp at the center of a table. Furniture, wallpapers and curtains, paintings and ornaments thus all formed smaller ‘vignettes’. 

Our special Night Light Tours are therefore a rare chance to see and understand the precious 19th century interiors of Rouse Hill House as they were known when they were created and lived in for generations. 

About the Author

Sydney Living Museums Image
Dr Scott Hill
Curator
Elizabeth Farm, Meroogal, Rouse Hill House & Farm
As a teenager, Scott Hill was captivated by pictures of ruins, trying to imagine how people had lived in these dramatic and crumbling spaces.

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