Easy chair designed by Steven Kalmar, Sydney, c1948. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums. Photo © Jamie North. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program by Ken Neale

An extraordinary collection

Ian Innes, Director, Capital Programs

Sought out by researchers, designers, artists, musicians and members of the public from across the globe, the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection has become Australia’s leading source of information on the history of houses, interiors, furnishings, gardens and domestic life. 

The Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection (CSL&RC), located at The Mint, is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the social and cultural history of the Australian home, from early colonial days to the present. Every day, people use the collection to research projects from films to fashion collections, home renovations and architectural dissertations. Looking for a first edition of Antiquities of Athens to check the proportions of an Ionic column? Ever wondered how to make lye soap from wood ash, or where to find an embroidery pattern for some ‘Berlin wool work’, or what the most popular garden plants were in the 1840s? Need to reproduce some acid-pastel paint colours for your 1950s weekender or track down a 1960s Italian pendant light fitting? The CSL&RC has it all! 

A practical initiative 

The CSL&RC was established in 1984 as the Lyndhurst Conservation Resource Centre, an early initiative of the Historic Houses Trust (HHT; now Sydney Living Museums) to provide public access to its holdings of trade catalogues, soft furnishings samples, textiles, wallpapers, tiles, light fittings, architectural pattern books and reference works. These items were originally drawn together by curators to assist them with the restoration and refurbishment of the first houses in the HHT’s care: Vaucluse House, Elizabeth Bay House and Elizabeth Farm. At that time, the HHT’s approach reflected growing interest worldwide in the authentic presentation of historic buildings informed by scholarly study of original documentary sources and material. 

The HHT’s refurnishing and presentation of these historic houses – focusing as much on kitchens and outhouses as on grand drawing rooms – won accolades and also attracted interest from members of the public seeking reliable information for their own projects. In response, the first director of the HHT, Dr Peter Watts AM, sought government funding to establish a dedicated library and resource centre. As the HHT’s core subject areas then were NSW colonial houses and domestic life, acquisitions focused on houses, gardens and domestic material culture. 

Page from Wallach Bros design book …, Melbourne, 1884–88. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums

A transformative gift 

In 2004, the HHT was gifted an important collection of Australian colonial furniture, pictures, objets d’art and ephemera, as well as a substantial financial contribution, by the family of the late Mrs Caroline Simpson OAM. In recognition of Mrs Simpson’s long advocacy for heritage conservation in NSW, including her own privately operated house museum and collection in Millers Point, the library and resource centre collections were renamed the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection. 

The gift coincided with the relocation of the HHT’s headquarters from Lyndhurst to the conserved and restored Mint coining factory in Macquarie Street, where the CSL&RC now occupies a purpose-built reading room, book stacks, research space and collection stores. The new central location enabled the expansion of education programs for tertiary students in architecture, interior design, design technologies and museum studies, and offers greater accessibility for the increasing numbers of people researching aspects of their own house, street or suburb. 

Guiding light 

In 1997, Megan Martin was recruited to manage the collection. With qualifications in English literature, librarianship, public history and Aboriginal studies, Megan came to the job with a strong and wide range of historical interests and developed an unrivalled specialist knowledge of the subject matter concerning the HHT. She would lead the growth and development of the CSL&RC for almost 25 years, until her retirement in May 2021.

  • Megan Martin in the library.

    Megan Martin in the library. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums

  • Window seat with Australian red cedar frame and light green upholstery

    Window seat (detail), c1840. Caroline Simpson Collection

This period also saw the beginnings and increasing importance of digital collections, searchable online catalogues and databases, and virtual access – all of which Megan initiated and promoted, and which are now a core focus of collecting institutions worldwide. Her practice of writing rich catalogue records has enhanced the accessibility of the collection via search engines and accounts for the extensive use of the CSL&RC by overseas researchers. 

Megan’s approach was informed by ‘neutrality’ as a curatorial principle – not making aesthetic judgments; collecting and studying everyday items as well as the high end; and recognising a shifting interest in the value of ephemera (such as cards, advertising, brochures and magazines) in conveying cultural meaning in day-to-day life. Considered in this way, a seemingly worthless piece of paper or domestic item may embody a historical and emotional value that can be surfaced through informed, contemplative study to yield cultural readings. This is also true of the collections of furniture, pictures and ephemera displayed in SLM’s museums themselves. 

An acclaimed architecture and design collection

Today, the CSL&RC’s holdings related to architecture and the home are the best of their kind in Australia, including the country’s only complete set of Rudolph Ackermann’s Repository of Arts; the most substantial collection of trade literature related to houses, interiors and gardens in Australia; and an extensive range of department store catalogues. 

One of Megan’s most significant acquisitions for the collection was the purchase of the Wasmuth Portfolio, a two-volume folio of the work of the highly influential American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Exquisite in their own right, the portfolio images – widely republished throughout the 20th century – also inspired a younger generation of Australian architects, such as Bruce Rickard, who became admired for his ‘Sydney school’ houses, superbly integrated into bushland sites using natural materials. In 2018, the CSL&RC acquired Rickard’s complete office archive, reflecting SLM’s role as the emerging subject leader in the study of modernist houses in Sydney. 

In recent years, acquisitions have documented modernist houses and interiors in Australia, and particularly the contribution of migrant designers and craftspeople such as Paul Kafka, Steven Kalmar, Emmerich Révész, Hugo Stossel and George Surtees who came to Australia from central and eastern Europe from the late 1930s onwards. 

  • Eisner house (Hugo Stossel), Warrawee, photographer unknown, c1951. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums

  • Curtain (detail), ‘Billabong’ design by John Coburn for John Kaldor Sekers Fabrics, Sydney, c1963. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums. Photo © Jamie North

Enriching SLM’s exhibitions and programs 

CSL&RC items regularly feature in SLM’s exhibitions, many of which have toured extensively throughout Australia. Among these are Dream Home, Small Home (2014), curated by Megan Martin and CSL&RC curator Michael Lech and chronicling the aspirational home-plan services of the 1950s and 60s; and Marion Hall Best: Interiors (2017), curated by Michael Lech, featuring some of the CSL&RC’s extensive collection of furniture, textiles and drawings associated with the celebrated Sydney interior designer. 

The CSL&RC also provides a treasure-trove of material for a changing program of displays within the library itself, and online resources such as Internet Archive. The web gallery ‘Threads of connection’, curated by Megan, features 100 objects from SLM’s collections, grouped thematically, and each with a narrative connecting it in time, place and association. 

Installation view of Marion Hall Best: Interiors exhibition at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery and Arts Centre. Photo © silversalt

Digitisation and access 

SLM has an extensive collection of 19th-century Australian and British sheet music provenanced to Australian families, much of it fragile. Over the past decade, the CSL&RC has highlighted the significance of this material and embarked on an ambitious cataloguing and digitisation project. With the support of donors, the CSL&RC has now digitised and published online more than 400 items, made and supported new recordings of live and studio performances, and contributed to international publications and music programs. The 2019 exhibition Songs of Home, curated by research librarian Dr Matthew Stephens, featured sheet music, instruments and images from the various SLM collections to explore domestic music in the pre-phonograph era. 

The digitisation of collections to enable broader access is a major initiative as students and researchers increasingly use discovery tools to connect with the content they need. Far from rendering original books, manuscripts, pictures and domestic objects irrelevant, the sharing of items through digitisation often drives an interest in their physical nature, and the CSL&RC has seen growing engagement by educators exploring the unique opportunities this collection provides for learning and cultural understanding through the study of objects. 

Our evolving partnership with NSW State Archives opens up further opportunities. While each institution’s collection retains its integrity, by sharing original material we can find many points of intersection that enhance both collections and allow new perspectives on the history and culture of NSW.



Image gallery

Click on an image below to take a closer look:

Explore the collection

Discover the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection at slm.is/library 

View digitised collections at archive.org/details/sydneylivingmuseums 

About the author

Ian Innes

Director, Capital Programs

Ian is passionate about the conservation and sustainable management of buildings, parks, gardens, and cultural collections - and is fortunate to work with other skilled and dedicated professionals at some of the most important historic places in NSW.

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

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