Maria Elena Ruggeri

Heritage project officer

Maria Elena Ruggeri’s multifaceted role as heritage project officer has given her a sense of belonging in her adopted country. 

Preserving material culture 

Interview by Tiana Vidler, Visitor & Interpretation Officer 

Growing up as one of five siblings in a very noisy family in the bustling city of Caracas in Venezuela, Maria Elena was encouraged by her parents to become anything she wanted to be: ‘Both of my parents worked in fields they loved and inspired all of us to do the same. I was provided with lots of support to pursue my interests; for me, that was a passion for the built environment, hence my degree in architecture from the Central University of Venezuela’. 

While studying, Maria Elena developed a great interest in the history and evolution of architecture, as well as the complexity of caring for built heritage: ‘Conservation became my focus. As a young professional I worked in the Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural, a government institution that promotes, guides and fosters cultural heritage in Venezuela. I worked as an assistant architect on the adaptive re-use of an 18th-century villa to become the institution’s headquarters. I’m an advocate for the re-use of heritage architecture when it prolongs a building’s life’. 

New vistas 

Keen to broaden her horizons, Maria Elena left Venezuela in 2000 for Sydney: ‘I was interested in experiencing a different part of the world. I adapted to Australia very quickly and felt welcomed and appreciated’. 

There were challenges along the way: ‘Trying to find a job in a specialised field with no local qualifications while raising a young family was daunting at times. I completed my master’s in heritage conservation at the University of Sydney and then worked as a curriculum program deliverer and visitor & interpretation officer at Vaucluse House, Elizabeth Bay House and SLM’s city museums. These wonderful experiences gave me fantastic insight into how people interact with our properties and confirmed the importance of working collaboratively. I’ve now been with SLM for ten years and love my current role in the Heritage Team’. 

Problem solving

Maria Elena believes it’s a privilege to work on properties that are so important to our history: ‘I feel very honoured that I can play a role in ensuring their physical survival’. Projects can range from conservation of painted finishes to structural stabilisation of stone and timber. Recent projects include major conservation and stabilisation works on the woolshed at Rouse Hill Estate, conserving the 1830s turrets at Vaucluse House, remediation works on the 1920s stone rill (channelled creek) at Vaucluse House, upgrading the balustrades at the Young Street Terraces, repainting the dome and saloon at Elizabeth Bay House, replacing a timber column on the first-floor verandah at the former Rum Hospital, and brick and stonework conservation at The Mint. 

Heritage conservation is a multidisciplinary field of work that can include chemistry, physics and engineering. As a project manager, Maria Elena is responsible for assembling the appropriate groups of specialists in each project and establishing good working relationships. She says: ‘Delivering these projects with numerous stakeholders requires an innate interest in problem solving plus resilience, patience and understanding’. 

A rewarding career

Maria Elena would love to see more women working in the areas of heritage and capital works:

Construction is a very interesting and rewarding career, and working with the SLM properties is particularly gratifying because of their importance to current and future generations. 

Although her role comes with great responsibility, Maria Elena feels enormous pride in the team’s work: ‘We’re essentially prolonging the life of these remarkable heritage buildings. Our SLM stories are in the walls, the floors, the outbuildings, the cellars, the pathways, the rooms, the stairways, the verandahs … They’re in the how and the why they were built the way they were, in the furnishings and decor and in all the people who lived or worked in, visited and interacted with these unique properties over the years. Ensuring the physical sustainability of each and every SLM property means that these stories can be told in the places where they happened for years to come’.  


This article originally appeared in Unlocked: The Sydney Living Museums Gazette, our quarterly Members’ magazine.

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Smiling woman with arms folded and colourful shirt

Maria Elena Ruggeri. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums