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 [external link]