Eavesdropping on the Wentworths
When it comes to historic interiors, even the most lovingly furnished spaces are silent. Usually lavish and lofty, like those in the impossibly splendid Elizabeth Bay House, though sometimes raw and unvarnished, like the dappled, down-trodden rooms of Susannah Place, there’s a quietness and stillness that renders the experience, at least for some, unfulfilling.
SPEAKING OF FLUX
At Vaucluse House, home to the restless and influential Wentworth family, the importance of breathing a sense of liveliness and consequence into the museum seems obvious.
Here was a family of movers and shakers. From William's early trek across the Blue Mountains to his blustery legal and political career, to Sarah's struggles with Sydney's high society and her decision in the 1850s to pull up stumps and shift the family abroad, theirs was a world in constant flux.
And like in all homes, secrets lurked in the shadows – glimmers of personal hardship, of unfinished business, struggles and sorrow, along with memories of comfort and joy.
Try as they may, curtains, carpets, chintz, marble and gleaming mahogany rarely speak to the chaos and drama of everyday life.
In the six years since meeting William, newly settled at Vaucluse – Sarah’s life had certainly been turned upside down. There’d been the joys of motherhood, comforts she’d never dreamt of, and unimaginable wealth. But there’d also been the loss of a parent, the sting of gossip and, to cap it off, the bitterness of William’s infidelity.
LEND US YOUR EAR
In recent years, curators have become increasingly keen to inject more of the Wentworth story into the museum and 'paint-in' personal detail. Reluctant, for obvious reasons, to complicate the place with digital apps, ill-fitting signage, or media screens, museum curators decided that an audio-based delivery device (without headphones or ear buds) was the most practical and sympathetic solution, to maintain the mansion's other-worldly ambience and spill a bunch of family yarns.
And according to audience research, our visitors agreed. Preference for stories of people clearly outweighs those of objects, furniture and architecture. And while staff-led tours look closely at the domestic world of the Wentworths, around 40% of our visitors prefer to explore the place without a guide, an appealing ramble in itself but unlikely to unlock many hidden secrets.
GETTING IT RIGHT
Having teamed up with Acoustiguide Australia on previous projects at the Hyde Park Barracks and Elizabeth Farm, the production team was confident in getting a great product.
“Not only is the script strong and stirring,” says Maryanne Leigh of Acoustiguide, “but the final production really sounds beautiful – a perfect fit for the mansion’s epic spaces and atmospheric nooks and crannies. And like before, we’re road-testing the device over a three month trial period, to take on suggestions and iron out wrinkles before finalising the production. It’s the best way to get it right.”
You'll notice the cooking range is hemmed in by a sturdy wall. This is a draft screen and its main function was to help the fire burn better by reducing gusts of wind. There were of course, other benefits. It gave the cook a handy set of shelves for pots and utensils and a warm area to prove or rest yeast products like fruit loaves and bread. More important, perhaps, was its role as a visual screen - making sure that members of the family and their guests in the main house didn’t catch an awkward glimpse of the cook bending over to stoke the fire ...
WORTH THE WAIT
Guiding visitors from the stylishly tiled courtyard into the family’s splendid reception areas and private bedroom wing, the audio commentary combines engaging insights into each area’s function with ‘personal backstories’ of William and Sarah Wentworth and their family.
Further on, the tour encounters the ‘hard yakka’ world of the housekeeper, butler, cook, scullery and dairy maids, revealing the complex and gruelling activities that once animated the extraordinary kitchen wing, with its behind-the-scenes ‘departments’ and well-used appliances.
SO STOP BY AND LISTEN IN
The audio tour is free with museum entry and takes about an hour from start to finish. For those less inclined to take a group tour, or preferring more flexibility and adventure, this is the museum experience you’ve been waiting for - bringing the amazing story of Vaucluse House, its hidden tales and leading characters, to life.
In 1847, the year the drawing room was completed, Sarah was invited to a gala ball at Government House to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Birthday. The inclusion of Sarah and other so-called damaged women on the guest list, however, drew strong objections from the moralizing gentry. Stung and humiliated by this very public scandal, Sarah was forced to decline. As the Sydney Morning Herald reminded its readers, Whenever a woman falls, she falls forever, she becomes as it were socially dead. Sarah’s brutal shunning could not be ignored, and when the chance arose, they decided to relocate the family to England and bring up their children free from the gossip of the small-minded colony. Plans were soon in motion, and after auctioning off their furniture and leasing out their estate, Sarah, and seven of her children, set sail for London in 1853.
Recently added stories
Oliver Richard Whiting
When the World War I honour roll was unveiled at the Sydney Branch of the Royal Mint in October 1920, just one of the seven names on the board was followed by the fateful words ‘killed in action’. The surname was one that had been associated with the Sydney Mint since its establishment in 1854.
Arthur McPhail Kilgour
Arthur McPhail Kilgour enlisted in the First Australian Imperial Force in October 1915, at the age of 19 years and eight months. Being under 21 meant he should have required his parents’ permission. However, he falsified his age on his attestation papers, giving it as 22 years and eight months. Perhaps his parents did not endorse their eldest son going to war but felt the decision was his to make and so did not inform the authorities.
Heritage in the City’s Future
No one wants a city that is indistinct from other global cities. The specific identity of a city, its sense of character and place stems from its heritage—places, buildings, whole streets and quarters of the city that embody past eras and encourage people to consider their place in time.
Story of country: our beginning
When visiting Sydney Living Museums it can be difficult to see beyond the European colonial narrative of our past and picture these sites before the bricks and mortar were laid. But peeling back the layers of time we find ourselves immersed in a truly different landscape.