Bringing House Museums to Life

Joanna Nicholas relishes her job as curator of three house museums, working to make sure each one is presented, interpreted and conserved in the best possible way.

Joanna comes from a family of collectors. Her maternal grandfather collected Asian ceramics, particularly treasures relating to Chinese scholars: water droppers, brush washer pots and brush rests. Her parents are eclectic collectors; the family home is crammed with 19th-century sewing equipment, doll’s house furniture, glass electrical insulators, old textiles, and even the very unfashionable flying duck – more than 40 sets of Beswick flying ducks soar up the walls of their living room.

‘My parents instilled in me an interest in old houses and their interiors. Whether it was the 1950s fibro housing stock on the NSW South Coast, outhouses made from rolledout 44-gallon drums or the house we grew up in, they taught me to respect the past and value the stories of the people who lived within the walls of these places’, Joanna says.

After completing Fine Arts and Museum Studies degrees at the University of Sydney, Joanna worked at the National Trust of Australia (NSW) for a number of years. In 2000 she was offered a job as the curatorof the then Conservation Resource Centre (now the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection at The Mint) at Lyndhurst and of Meroogal, Sydney Living Museums’ (SLM) 19th-century historic house in Nowra. She brings a wealth of experience in researching, interpreting and recording the history of houses, interiors and gardens to her current role of curator, Eastern Sydney Portfolio.

The diversity of working at Sydney Living Museums

As curator of Vaucluse House and Elizabeth Bay House in Sydney’s eastern suburbs and Rose Seidler House in Wahroonga, Joanna works with staff across SLM and consults with a variety of professionals – painters, gilders, builders, plumbers, upholsterers, roofers, conservators, furniture historians, designers, metalworkers, floral artists and embroiderers.

‘I love the diversity of working at a historic site – from the minutiae to the large scale. Whether I am repositioning a sofa table at Elizabeth Bay House or preparing Rose Seidler House for the annual Fifties Fair, I aim to maximise and enhance the visitor experience while balancing the preservation needs of the houses and their interiors and collections.’

The importance of authenticity 

The significance of the particular collection item or room she is working with is always foremost in Joanna’s mind and guides her decision-making. The challenges are not always straightforward. When selecting fabric to replace the (reproduction) curtains at Rose Seidler House recently, she sought to replicate as closely as possible Harry Seidler’s original design – a triple pinchpleated rayon in gold and blue – while balancing the need to control heat and light. A further complication is that fabrics from the 1950s are not available today.


 

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

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