Sydney has some superb museums that beautifully capture the city’s colourful and storied past. Loving history as much as I do, I found myself wanting to devote a bit more time to them than my overview of things to do in Sydney warranted. So I’m taking the opportunity to do them justice here instead.
Here’s a closer look inside some of my top museums in Sydney…
1. Hyde Park Barracks Museum
Note: As of 2019, Hyde Park Barracks is closed for renewal.
The Hyde Park Barracks Museum is part of the Australian Convict Sites World Heritage property. Built to house convicts in the early 19th century, it was subsequently used as an immigration depot. The museum touches on both parts of the site’s history.
We found the tour excellent, though we were very lucky to get a tour guide to ourselves! The building itself is wonderfully presented. In certain areas and rooms they’ve stripped things back in order to expose historical features: former wall decoration, the location of old foundations or an old staircase.
The exhibits are thoughtful and of exceptional quality. There are displays of items excavated from work on the building, plenty of informative boards and audiovisual details. I came away feeling I’d learnt a lot and very much enjoyed doing so.
2. Susannah Place Museum
Susannah Place is more like a preserved/recreated home than a museum. A terrace of four separate houses dating back to 1844, it’s unusual in The Rocks for having survived various waves of demolition and redevelopment that went on in the surrounding streets.
I knew when I set foot in the recreated 1920s corner shop / reception area that it was my kind of place. (That vintage packaging!)
I love museums, but it’s preserved and recreated buildings that truly give me the sense of stepping into history that I love the most. It’s just a shame we weren’t able to take photos inside!
3. Justice and Police Museum
True crime is a morbidly fascinating subject and the Justice and Police Museum weaves a chilling, captivating narrative through Sydney’s criminal past. Based in the former Water Police Station and courts, there are reproduction charge rooms and holding cells as well as an impressive collection of artefacts and archive media.
Though I enjoyed all the displays, my highlight was the City of Shadows exhibition. Described by curator Peter Doyle as ‘an intimate, raw and hauntingly beautiful record of the mysterious people and dark places of a Sydney lost’, the display is centred on photography from the museum’s forensic archive, including crime scene photography, mugshots and intriguing ‘special photographs’ where subjects ‘seem to have been allowed – perhaps invited – to position and compose themselves for the camera as they liked’.
There’s something intensely powerful about examining the faces of the criminals in this detached way, searching for some outward sign of guilt or deviance, but I also loved the insights provided into prosaic vestiges from the past. Dress, decor, objects and street scenes all captured with such simplicity.
4. The Rocks Discovery Museum
More info: The Rocks Discovery Museum
As the name suggests, this small, free museum is set in The Rocks, a historic part of Sydney close to Circular Quay. It covers pre-European history as well as more recent stories and archaeological findings (see the glassware and crockery above). There was also a lovely photography exhibition on the top floor when we visited, though I believe this was temporary.
Since it’s so small, there’s not a great deal to comment upon. Except to say that this museums has one of the most fascinating animated maps I’ve ever seen! It’s on the ground floor and shows the development of various empires over the course of hundreds of years. This is something I’d never thought to seek out previously that was so interesting to see visualised.
Pin the image below!