I didn’t have time to see as many museums as I would have liked to in Sydney, but I did make sure that Hyde Park Barracks made the cut, because it was (they were? According to the internet, barracks can be both a singular and a plural, so I’m just going with what feels less awkward) so integral to the history of Sydney and well, all of modern Australia. Although the “First Fleet”(carrying the first batch of convicts to be sent to Australia) arrived in 1788, and the barracks wasn’t built in 1819, until convict transportation ended three decades later, the Hyde Park Barracks was central to the life of many Sydneysiders. Although convicts could serve out their sentences being put to work in different ways, and many would eventually earn their freedom, over 50,000 new Australians lived here at one point or another in the crowded hammock-strewn dormitories still set up on its upper floors – for the most part, these were men and boys put to work in government gangs, though after transportation stopped, the building served variously as a girls’ orphanage, an immigration centre, and a home for destitute women.
But that’s enough history for now, let’s get to the modern day museum! Admission is 10 AUD, although it’s part of the Sydney Living Museums Group that also includes the Museum of Sydney, The Justice and Police Museum (more on that one next week), and Susannah Place. Even if you’re only going to visit two of these museums, it’s worth getting the Living Museums Pass for $18, because the museums are $10 each (except Susannah Place, that’s only $8), so you save $2 if you make it to two, and anything beyond that is then basically free! The Barracks also give you a free audio guide (with or without the pass), which was actually not too terrible, as far as these things go.
The museum is interesting because it’s a mix of modern interactive museum rooms, and empty dilapidated old rooms where you can better appreciate the architecture and what the building looked like when it was actually being used as barracks. They even had a “ghost staircase” which unfortunately sounded cooler than it looked (it was just a metal bar marking where the staircase would have been). The first museum room was about what life would have been like for the first convicts to come over, including the food they were given to eat, the clothes they had to wear, and the disciplinary measures that would have been meted out to those who disobeyed the rules. There were big computer screens built into the tables, where you could select different objects in a painting of people awaiting transportation to learn more about them, though it didn’t seem to be working that well when I was there (I kept trying to click on things, and only a few of them were responsive).
The second room included a cool panorama painting, and information on the early history of Sydney, which began to grow into a substantial town outside the barracks thanks to transportees who had earned the right to live in their own homes, or were pardoned altogether (people living at the barracks weren’t technically prisoners; though they had to work for the government on weekdays, and came back to the barracks to sleep, they were allowed to work for themselves on Saturdays, and had Sunday as a day of rest. It was in many ways a much better life than remaining in an English gaol, where you often had to pay for your upkeep and ran a pretty high risk of catching typhus, and certainly better than the punishment many of these criminals were spared through transportation, i.e. execution). It also talked about Governor Macquarie (pronounced, going by the audio guide, as Mac-Quarry), the fifth governor of New South Wales, and a big name in these parts (you will see many things named after him and his wife), who was a reformer who genuinely seemed to want to improve life for the convicts (his record with the Aborigines is more mixed…though he took a very liberal approach towards them for the time, his policy of forcing Aborigine children to attend Westernised schools didn’t bode well for their culture).
The next floor contained stories about the women who passed through the building when it was an immigration centre. Each bed had a brief biography of one of the women written on the covers (some also had videos projected across the bed), and there were also chests you could open to discover more artefacts and information. The room next to it was full of big signboards detailing the complete history of the building, and it was just a bit too wordy, really, to read all of it, though I did catch a few interesting tidbits about flogging and reports of sodomy amongst early convicts (I think my eyes just naturally get drawn to the juicy stuff).
I enjoyed learning some convict slang words with the help of another computer screen, this one containing biographies of some convicts who passed through here (there were some bad seeds among them, like murderers and such. I mean, I feel bad for the people who were transported just for petty theft, but murder is another thing altogether). There was also a glass case that was meant to represent the amount of living space allocated to each convict. As you can kind of see from the photo above, it wasn’t much.
Despite this lack of living space, and the spartan decor, I really enjoyed relaxing in the re-creation of the dormitories up on the top floor (I suspect it was slightly more spacious than it would have been back in the day, plus I was the only one in there, which helped). I definitely wouldn’t want to sleep on a hammock every night, especially packed next to a bunch of other people, because I’m not quite sure how you’d be able to roll over without falling out, but I have to say it was very comfy for a quick rest after walking around in jandals all day (my favourite Kiwi word. Jandals forever!); for once I wasn’t worried about the audio guide being long-winded, because I just hung around and had a listen.
Leaving the museum in search of the toilets (they’re in the courtyard behind the museum) led me to two surprises; an old courtroom that you were free to explore (i.e. sit in ALL the chairs), and the museum’s cats, one of whom was cosily curled up on a mat not far from the toilets, but I didn’t want to disturb him as he was clearly very sleepy (though a child who found him wasn’t as considerate. Poor kitty).
Back inside, in the admissions/small gift shop area, there is a computer where you can check the records to see if any of your ancestors were convicts. As my ancestors were all Polish or Slovenian immigrants who came over to America in the early 1900s (I’m pretty sure I’m the only person in my family to have even set foot in Australia), I knew I wouldn’t find anything (and I was right!), but I still checked, just in case. All in all, this was a pretty enjoyable museum. I learned a lot about the history of Sydney, and given my interest in true crime and such, the fact that the history of Sydney involves so many convicts was just perfect for me. A little austere in places (by design), but nonetheless an attractive building, and an informative outing. 3.5/5.