This immersive exhibition, on display at the Hyde Park Barracks Museum back in 2010, explored the lives of convicts, revealing their experiences of transportation, their sufferings and successes, and how they forged new lives in the colony of New South Wales.

In particular, Convict Sydney celebrated the extraordinary contribution of convicts and the convict system in shaping and building the early town of Sydney. The exhibition coincided with the 2010 World Heritage listing of the Hyde Park Barracks and its formal recognition as one the world's most significant 'forced migration' and convict culture sites.
Painting of Hyde Park baracks from south western courner shortly after construction with two men in front. It looks dry and there are no trees.

'Convict Barrack Sydney N.S. Wales.' G W Evans (attrib), c1820. watercolour. State Library of New South Wales: PX*D 41

With its completion in 1819, the Hyde Park  Barracks became the first port of call for  many of the 80,000 convicts sent to New  South Wales over the life of the penal  settlement. It was initially an arrival hall and  assignment depot that accommodated  mainly male convicts working in government  gangs, although a few women and children  were also housed there. After 1830. convicts who had committed colonial crimes and misdemeanours - men, women, juveniles and those assigned to free settlers - were sent to the barracks from all over the colony. They went before the magistrate’s bench to have their punishments determined and to be reassigned. The records of their trials make fascinating reading.   

Graphic that says Insites - published in insites magazine
This article was written by former SLM curator Inara Walden and originally published in the Summer 2010 issue of Insites.

Convict Sydney was a close-up look at convict life in the early settlement. The display in the northern gallery told of the work convicts performed, the various crimes they committed and the punishments that kept them in check. It also evoked aspects of their daily lives. The southern gallery focused on the town of Sydney - how and where the different sectors of society interacted, lived and worked. Stories were told of the Tank Stream and Busby’s Bore, dug by Barracks men, and Aboriginal Sydney and the convict town. We looked at the end of convict transportation and the final days of the Hyde Park ‘Prisoners’ Barracks’ when the last convicts were transferred to Cockatoo Island. Visitors could walk over the giant map of 1822 convict Sydney to find the city’s first markets, churches, pubs and manufacturing sites, and to see how much of the foundation of our modern metropolis was the work of convict hands. 


Convict Sydney was a close-up look at convict life in the early settlement ...

Four young visitors looking at the treadmill interactive in the Convict Sydney exhibition
Young visitors examining the treadmill interactive in Convict Sydney exhibition. Photo © Paolo Busato for Sydney Living Museums EPU10_0422

In developing the exhibition, our creative team faced a number of challenges and certain expectations. The imminent World Heritage listing would bring more overseas visitors than ever before, and we still had to cater for the families and school groups already attracted to the site. The exhibition had to be accessible to all. Multilingual audio guides would be produced in the future, but in the interim theexhibition had to be meaningful to non-English-speaking visitors. To this end we decided to include more visual and interactive content, rather than relying on written text panels as the sole means of storytelling. 

The initial challenge was how to evoke the experience of convict lives when so few images exist of the convicts themselves. Abundant official records inform us about the lives of individuals but there remain very few portraits or other depictions of convicts at work in Sydney. There are no photographic images to draw on, since transportation to New South Wales ended in 1840 when photographic techniques were only just being developed in Europe. The exhibition team decided to commission artists to imagine and illustrate aspects of convict life, based on what we know from the written records and existing historical images. 

Panoramic depiction of crime, punishment and transportation of convicts to Australia in the early 19th century.
Artistic reconstruction of crime, punishment and transportation of convicts to Australia in the early 19th century for the exhibition Convict Sydney at the Hyde Park Barracks Museum. Painting © Wayne Haag for Sydney Living Museums

We asked Wayne Haag, a matte painter who had created digital backdrops and environments for feature films such as the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, to paint a giant tableau to show the journey of convicts from Britain to Sydney. He drew on available evidence, and his imagination, to map out a narrative image for the gallery walls. His team made composite sketches of the scene, then professional historical re-enactors from the group Historica were photographed wearing convict slops and period outfits. From these images Haag painted the vignettes and mini-scenes he needed on four canvas panels of a quarter of final size. These were digitally scanned and stitched together, then they were enlarged and printed onto canvas to create the giant mural. The image was printed in 1.5 metre wide sections, which were then applied to the walls in much the same way as hanging strips of wallpaper. 

Timber counter in exhibition with inset video screen showing moving hands and plates filled with soup and bread and props with examples of convict food. In the background is a large image of convicts leaving England bound for australia.
Video screen in Convict Sydney exhibition showing a pair of convicts consuming a meal. Photo © Paolo Busato for Sydney Living Museums

We also commissioned scale models of devices used to punish and house convicts, replica convict food bags and rations, and slops and leg-irons for visitors to try on. A bird’s-eye view of the barracks drawn by illustrator Richard T Gregory shows typical activity at the site in the 1820s. Meanwhile, the touch-screen interactives allow visitors to explore the background to the phenomenon of transportation and find out more about Sydney in the convict era. 

In the year of the 200th anniversary of [Macquarie's] taking up the governorship, it's fitting to highlight his and Mrs Macquarie's stamp on the town of Sydney ...

Governor Lachlan Macquarie built the Hyde Park Barracks to tighten his command over the convict labour force needed to carry out hi s ambitious program of public works. He intended the fledgling penal colony to become a thriving new society. In the year of the 200th anniversary of his taking up the governorship, its fitting to highlight his and Mrs Macquarie’s stamp on the town of Sydney.

The couple’s building, landscaping and civic improvements were achieved with convict labour. As visitors to the exhibit ion gaze at the panoramic view of the bustling Macquarie-era town in the southern gallery, they can imagine themselves back in 19th-century convict Sydney. 

Two visitors standing in front of circular panorama installation in Convict Sydney exhibition. On the floor is a large compass graphic.
Panorama installation in Convict Sydney exhibition. Photo © Paolo Busato for Sydney Living Museums 

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