New South Wales

Eden, NSW Australia: The Killer Whale Museum (and Wilsons Promontory)

DSC06619Even when I was a kid, I hated Sea World.  Not on grounds of animal cruelty, because I don’t think many children are particularly conscious of that, but because I didn’t really like killer whales (or dolphins, they’re smug, but that’s another story).  I’m not big on sea life in general I guess; it’s fine if it stays in the sea, where it belongs, but don’t be coming on land.  So the Killer Whale Museum wasn’t so appealing at first glance, until I learned it wasn’t really about killer whales so much as whaling.  You see, in Eden, the local whalers had a special relationship with the killer whales.  The whales would help herd right or sperm whales towards the shore, where they could be easily killed, and in return, the whalers would throw the killer whales the tongues of the right whales after the carcasses had been stripped of blubber and such.  Which is really pretty interesting, if a bit gruesome.

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We visited the Killer Whale Museum during a long day of driving when there wasn’t much else to see along the way, so we were glad of a chance to get out and stretch our legs for a bit, even though admission was $10.  The museum was on two floors, though only the top floor was really about whaling.  Without a doubt, the highlight of the collection was the skeleton of Old Tom, one of the whalers’ favourite whales.  Once, when a man was drowned crossing a river, and his body wasn’t immediately found, Old Tom went and swam next to the body, enabling the searchers to drag it onshore and bury it.  When Old Tom himself was dying, he swam up a river and died there, which is how they were able to collect his skeleton (he wasn’t killed or anything). He was just one of many orcas in the pod that assisted the whalers, and they were all given special names.  Orcas and whalers were downright cozy in Eden.

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I have to say, even though there was something a bit crap about this museum, it was still miles better than the one they’d put together at Butler Point, perhaps because someone in Eden appeared to have a sense of humour.  In addition to being full of the products made from whale parts, it also had a display on interesting whale-based “cures,” like the one shown above, for rheumatism, where holes were made in the side of a freshly killed whale, and sufferers (and they really would be suffering) were placed inside to bask in the whale’s remaining body heat until the carcass was considered sufficiently decomposed to let the patients out.  Amazingly, some people came back multiple times for this treatment, as they got so much benefit from it!  I can’t imagine.

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The museum also had its fair share of tall tales (though maybe some of them had some basis in fact), like the story of a real-life Jonah who was swallowed by a whale and found some time later in the whale’s stomach, after it had been killed.  His hair and skin had been bleached by the whale’s stomach acid, and he was almost blind, but he did eventually recover, though it took him some weeks (I vaguely recall reading this story elsewhere, which still doesn’t make it true).  Little quirky stories like this, and the charming, hand-painted signs gave the museum (at least the upper floor) the feeling of a less-commercialised Ripley’s Believe it or Not.

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Although this feeling subsided somewhat when we went into the movie room (which was ambitiously large), expecting to see a film about, well, whaling, only to be shown a weird tourism video for Eden (to be honest, it didn’t look like a particularly promising town) that went on for ages, so eventually we gave up and left.

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The downstairs area was more like a typical local museum, with some history of the area (illustrated in part by that frightening mannequin), both Aboriginal (I most enjoyed learning about mythical monsters, like bunyips and mindi) and European, and information about local industries other than whaling (which weren’t as interesting as whaling).  There was also a special gallery dedicated to local men who served in WWI, which was probably the most nicely-put together part of this downstairs area.  I really liked reading about the wartime experiences of some of the locals.

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There were also a few random things scattered about outside, like whale skulls and bits of boaty equipment, and a little lighthouse.  You weren’t allowed up the stairs of the lighthouse, but there was a small exhibit on the ground floor about lighthouse keepers that I found fascinating (mostly about the perils of living in such an isolated, weather-beaten environment, especially for men who brought their wives and children along) and wished it had a bit more information.

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Though I think some elements of the downstairs galleries could have used a bit of work to make them as interesting as the rest of it (there was just too much signage in the one room, and most of it was quite dull, about tools used in various industries), and $10 was probably a bit steep, I did genuinely enjoy the whaling galleries quite a bit more than those at the Whaling Museum at Butler Point, so I’ll give them 3/5 for that, although they need to sort out some of the other stuff, like that lame movie room.

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Because I don’t think it merits a whole post, but I wanted to share it with you, I’m going to talk about Wilsons Promontory a bit here as well.  It is the southernmost point of mainland Australia (and about a six hour drive from Eden…we went here the next day after lots more driving!) and had a variety of walks, but because we still had a lot of driving ahead of us (it is a LONG way from Sydney to Melbourne), we opted only to do the wildlife walk.  The problem with a wildlife walk in Australia is that many of the animals that live here are terrifying.  Case in point: emus.  I don’t know, I just don’t trust a bird that big.  Like, what are they up to that makes them have to be so big?  I’m not quite as scared of emus as I am of cassowaries (which fortunately don’t live anywhere near the parts of Australia we visited, though I did see a couple at the zoo), but I was still pretty freaked out to see a bunch of them just roaming around where we parked our car.  I definitely gave them plenty of space when heading to the trail.  However, it wasn’t just emus, or else I wouldn’t be telling you about it.  Nope, Wilsons Promontory also has kangaroos and wombats (and wallabies, though we didn’t see any).  The kangaroos were cute, and it was neat to see them in the wild (despite their stubborn refusal to actually hop about.  They were just doing a lazy walk where they put their front paws down and kind of dragged their legs behind them), but I was especially charmed by the wombats.  They are adorable fat little balls of fluff that waddle around and fart, and it was worth detouring here just to see them (we saw two different ones, I was pretty excited!), so I’d definitely recommend stopping here if you’re driving through Victoria!

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Kurnell, NSW Australia: Kamay Botany Bay National Park

DSC06568This isn’t the kind of thing I’d normally devote an entire post to, but I promised a while ago that there’d be more Captain Cook, and this is a pretty key Cook site. Botany Bay is where Cook first made landfall in Australia, and was thus the first point of contact between Europeans and Aborigines.  Unfortunately, the historical importance of the site wasn’t enough to stop the encroachment of the modern world, and whilst the landing site and a section of park around it have been preserved, the view from the bay is not so attractive, being mainly industrial plants belching smoke into the sky (it didn’t really look like water you’d want to swim in, even if there wasn’t the threat of jellyfish and/or sharks, this being Australia).

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Anyway, although you can just drive right into the park (after first navigating through quite a lot of ugly urban sprawl on the trip down from Sydney), you’re apparently meant to purchase a pass, which is $8 per car.  We did see the sign at the entrance warning us about the fee, but it wasn’t clear where we were meant to get the pass from.  There were also no signs by the visitor centre, so we just parked up and did the Cook walk.  It wasn’t until after we finished walking and used the toilets that we caught sight of a large sign (by the sinks!) warning of a $400 fine for non-payment, so we then hurriedly made our way inside the visitors’ centre and requested a pass from the rather unfriendly and bemused woman inside.  Moral of the story is: I don’t think they enforce the fine very well, but if you’re concerned, you can buy a pass from the visitors’ centre, and apparently from machines somewhere by the entrance, which aren’t very obvious, because we missed them entirely.

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The walk is self-guided, with the help of some arrows posted around the trail now and again; we followed the main trail, but apparently we should have been doing the wheelchair accessible trail, because we missed a whole bunch of stuff and had to backtrack to see it (unless we just followed the signs incorrectly, they did kind of peter out after a while).  I got the impression that the park was at one time way more Euro-centric, and they changed it within the last couple decades to embrace the Aborigines more, as some of the Aboriginal culture stuff felt kind of tacked-on, as though it were an afterthought.  There was a large stone structure at the start that told us more about first contact, and I guess was meant to represent the meeting of the two peoples, which was all well and good (though it did somewhat overstate what happened at the meeting.  It was definitely momentous, but the actual encounter was somewhat anticlimactic.  The Aborigines basically told the English to go away, and ignored them as best they could), but then we had to walk through an “Aborigine soundscape,” which was a little bizarre.  I kept hearing people talking, which creeped me out a little bit because we were quite obviously alone, but it turns out that was just the “soundscape.”

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But I was excited when the short walk (I think the whole trail was only 1.5 km) took us down to the bay, and I spied the giant Captain Cook memorial near the waterfront.  Just beyond it, on a rocky outcrop, is the actual landing place, though I get the feeling that they don’t really want people going out to it, because it’s not particularly accessible.  I only noticed it because it was marked on one of the maps – you have to climb up slippery rocks covered in sharp pointy oysters to get a look at it, and hop over about a two foot gap from one rock to the other, which I was not confident enough to do in jandals (and certainly not in bare feet, because of all those damn oysters), so I only walked up to the rock facing it, and my boyfriend hopped over and snagged a picture of the plaque for me.

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There’s also meant to be a buoy somewhere marking where the Endeavour was anchored whilst the men were onshore, but I didn’t see it.  Probably hidden amongst all those industrial plants.  The beach wasn’t great, but it was still pretty cool to stand right where Cook and his men (including that dishy Joseph Banks) did, and I enjoyed it, even though my feet stank like rotten clams for the rest of the day (they stink anyway, but it’s usually more of a Dorito-y smell).

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There was a pier where you could walk out over the bay, and this contained more information about first contact and the Aborigine tribes that lived in the area.  Until the mid-20th century, when it was made into a national park, it was a popular holiday spot for Aborigines, who would fish and gather the oysters that are clearly here in abundance.

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I was most excited about the Joseph Banks memorial, for obvious reasons, but it was something of a disappointment.  It must have been commissioned by a man, because he chose to use a portrait of Banks from when he was old and fat, rather than the dishy young Banks that would have come ashore here.  It also wasn’t built until the 1960s or something, so was clearly a bit of an afterthought as well.

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In addition to more signs about the native flora (including Banksia, named after, well, you know who) and fauna (both of which were in abundance, hence the name Botany Bay.  If Banks and Solander hadn’t had time to go ashore here and spend a few days gathering plants, it would probably today be known as “Tolerably Well-Sheltered Bay,” going by Cook’s initial diary entry on the place), there was also a grave marker erected to the first British person to die in Australia (one of Cook’s men, who had tuberculosis.  His name escapes me, and I can’t quite make it out in the photo) put up a century or two after his death (so the spot is presumably approximate).  Even though it was a beautiful day, we didn’t see anyone else there until we headed back up to the visitors’ centre, and we then came across two groups of schoolchildren playing some sort of game with the park rangers (I think this is the sort of place that every Australian schoolchild is required to visit, so I can understand why adults aren’t keen).

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Speaking of the visitors’ centre, there was a small museum-style display in there, including a scale replica of the Endeavour, and some information about Cook’s voyages and legacy. Botany Bay was meant to be the spot where the first transported convicts would be sent, as recommended by Joseph Banks (Cook was dead by this point) and others, but Cook and his men had been there during the autumn, when it appeared to have a pleasant climate, and plenty of natural resources.  The “First Fleet” arrived during summer, when there was a drought, and found there was no source of fresh water, and not enough of a harbour, so they moved a few miles up the coast to what would become Sydney instead.  If not for that, there would be a bustling city here today, instead of urban sprawl and a bit of parkland.

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My favourite part of the whole endeavour (see what I did there?) was the mural painted on the walls of the lecture theatre. I couldn’t help but sneak a cheeky selfie with their rendition of Banks, even though it wasn’t nearly as good as the portrait of him in the National Portrait Gallery.  All told, I enjoyed Botany Bay, but this was primarily because of the Cook connection rather than what was actually in the modern park (which could do with a bit of work; some of the plaques and stuff were so worn down, you could barely read them, and the visitor’s centre wasn’t great.  I wanted a Captain Cook t-shirt or something, and they didn’t even have postcards.  Not that I particularly wanted to buy them from the surly woman working there, but still…).  3/5, but only because of the history, rather than the National Parks’ lacklustre efforts.

Sydney, NSW: Justice and Police Museum

DSC06155Carrying on with the theme of, well, convicts, right after visiting the Hyde Park Barracks, we headed over to the Justice and Police Museum, which is just a short walk away (but be warned, you pass the Botanical Gardens on your walk, which are lovely, but full of what I call scare birds, because they’re so damn scary (they’re actually white ibis, but they look just like plague doctor masks brought to life, and freak me the hell out) and giant orb spiders.  The latter are not giant in the sense of huntsmen or something, but are still plenty big if you’re not keen on spiders).  For some reason, even though it’s not a tiny museum or anything, it’s only open on weekends, so plan accordingly.  Admission is $10, or if you’re visiting a couple of the Sydney Living Museums, you can buy that pass I mentioned in the last post and save a couple bucks.

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The museum is located, as these things so often are, in a former police station, with police courtrooms and a few jail cells at the back, so you can really get a taste of what it was like to be a criminal in Sydney (from the 1850s onward).  We were assured that the museum looped back around, so we could enter any way we wanted and see the whole museum; unfortunately, as I am wont to do, I ended up getting lost, so we had to awkwardly walk past the admissions desk again to see the last two rooms of the museum, but no big deal (except for when the chick at the admissions desk said goodbye to us, and I had to mumble, “We’re not leaving, we just went the wrong way.”).

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The first room we went into, one of the museum’s temporary exhibition rooms, featured an exhibit on mugshots.  Or more particularly, the very peculiar (and rather charming) mugshots that Sydney police stations specialised in.  A short video was playing when we walked in, so we had a seat and learned all about how Sydney refused to conform to the norm where early 20th century mugshots were concerned; instead of standing in front of the traditional height chart while holding up a sign with their name and other identifying information written on it, criminals were allowed to pose in their own clothes in front of various backdrops, pretty much however they wanted, and their names and details were written in later, on top the photographic plate.  We came in halfway through the video, so it was never really explained why they made this unusual “artistic” decision, but we did get to view many of these mugshots, with a wry narrator analysing the stance and expressions of the people in them (some of the people were surprisingly dapper, for, you know, hardened criminals).

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The second room contained biographies of some of the criminals in the mugshots we’d just looked at, including one poor girl who was basically turned into a drug smuggler by her mother (she had her mugshot taken in her ratty old fur coat, but was actually quite pretty, which probably helped get her a light sentence.  Plus the fact that she had a terrible mother didn’t hurt either).  Then, we were on to the old police courts, where up to 120 cases per day were heard while they were in use. The accused were made to sit in a caged area (that apparently they sometimes refused to leave, if the trial didn’t go their way. However, only minor offences were tried here, so the worst they would have been facing was a short spell in jail).  Though I of course posed for the obligatory cage picture (cage can be seen a  few paragraphs up, without me in it), I was most excited when I climbed up to the magistrate’s bench and found the chair pictured above.  In fact, I shouted, “it’s a hemorrhoid doughnut!” and started cackling, because I’m incredibly mature like that.  And then I sat on it, of course (still laughing hysterically, as you can probably tell from the other picture).

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I was, as usual, way more entertained by the confiscated weapons room than I should have been.  I mean, there were a lot of boring guns and such, but some of the more unusual weapons had terse labels explaining how they were used, and oh man, what kind of perseverance do you have to have to murder someone with a hammer?  I guess if you’re strong enough, you can probably smash someone’s skull in pretty quickly, but I imagine it’s more likely to be a case of multiple blows.  Brutal.

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There was a charge room, which was once the entrance to the police station, and had a small partitioned seat for women in the corner that was unfortunately located right across from the barred seat where they kept unruly drunks and other out-of-control criminals, which I’m sure resulted in an uncomfortable amount of ogling/heckling (the women would also have had to be slim, and only in there one at a time, because that seat was tiny).  We also went in some of the old cells that were still decked out to look as they would have in the 1890s; basically you got a hard bench that you had to share with up to 5 other people (up to 12 people could be kept in a cell at once).

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The other cells were full of exhibits, including one about Sydney police dogs (the taxidermied one shown here, and another who they trained to drive a small car, so she could perform at police benefits and such.  It was pretty adorable, but I still feel kind of bad for the dog), and another about bushrangers, who in the early days were simply convicts who slipped away into the outback to try to eke out a living there, but they became more like highwaymen or something, and preyed on travellers and legitimate settlers.  And presumably Aborigines too, but since they didn’t count as Australian citizens until 1967 (an appalling fact I learned at the museum), probably nobody cared if they were murdered.

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The most interesting room, as far as I was concerned, was the forensics room, which focused on a couple of high profile 20th century murder cases.  The first was the kidnapping and murder of Graeme Thorne in 1960.  Poor Graeme was an eight year old boy whose father had recently won the lottery, and he was initially kidnapped and held for ransom, but his kidnapper, Stephen Bradley, decided to kill him less than 24 hours after abducting him (it has been speculated that he initially meant to kidnap Graeme’s younger sister, as she was too young to identify him so she could have been safely released on payment on the ransom, but she was never away from her parents, so he had to kidnap Graeme instead, and then panicked when he realised the boy would be able to identify him.  Which is just dumb, because what the hell did he think he was going to happen if he abducted an eight year old without wearing a mask or anything?!).  One of the things that eventually led to Bradley’s arrest and successful prosecution was his very stupid looking dog, as seen above.  Hairs from the dog were found on the rug that Graeme’s body was wrapped in, and matched with Bradley’s actual dog (still alive at the time, obviously), which is why it has been so cunningly preserved here.  The other big case was the Pyjama Girl murder of 1934, where the body of a comely young woman wearing silk pajamas was found partially burnt on the side of a creek.  Although the case was initially unsolved, it was reopened ten years later; through dental records, the woman was determined to be Linda Agostini, and her husband eventually confessed to her murder (apparently there is still some controversy over this, because someone just wrote a book about it in 2004 claiming the body couldn’t have been Linda Agostini, as for one thing, her eyes were a different colour).  This captured a great deal of attention in its day, as not only was it a brutal murder, but the pajama girl was so young and stylish (in her pajamas) that it seemed especially horrific.

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The final rooms (the ones I had to go back past the entrance to see, after taking a wrong turn past the police court) contained temporary exhibits, including more in-depth biographies of interesting murderers (there was a female poisoner, which is my favourite kind of murderer to read about.  There’s usually an intriguing back story), complete with artefacts like death masks and weapons they actually used to commit their murders.  The final room had an exhibit on lockpickers and safecrackers, with a big safe plonked down in the middle of the room so you could learn more about their techniques.

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I always enjoy a crime museum, and this one was no exception (that’s why I chose it over the many, many other museums in Sydney we could have seen if we’d had the time.  I passed up a medical museum for this, people!).  I liked that it was housed in an actual police station, and the exhibitions were always interesting, and just the right amount of grisly to keep me satisfied. An all-around good effort.  3.5/5.

Sydney, NSW Australia: Hyde Park Barracks Museum

DSC05945I 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.

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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.

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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).

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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).

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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