Outdoor Museums

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See the little hut there on the left of this watercolour image?* It is one of the convict huts that, from 1790, lined both sides of High Street, Rose Hill, better known today as George Street, Parramatta. And on Saturday morning, I saw that convict hut with my very own eyes! This is because I was one of a few very lucky Parra locals who scooped up tickets to one of five free tours the Parramatta Park Trust offered the local community. The purpose of these tours was to inform the community about the Park’s multilayered history and showcase the archaeological work currently being carried out for the Trust by GML Heritage. You can see images and read all about the tour and Parramatta’s convict huts here on my blog “The Old Parramattan”: https://theoldparramattan.wordpress.com/2015/09/21/parramattas-convict-huts/
Free community tours like this one have become a regular occurrence at Parramatta Park since the inclusion of Old Government House and Domain on the World Heritage list of Australian Convict sites in 2010, which has enabled a lot of important heritage projects to be undertaken. The Park’s gatehouses, for example, are being restored one by one; the Macquarie Street Gatehouse, The George Street “Tudor” Gatehouse, and Mays Hill Gatehouse have all already been transformed through incredible conservation works and prepared for adaptive reuse. The Dairy Cottage that once housed emancipist George Salter is also about to receive some tender loving care and, with the aid of modern technology, will soon completely immerse visitors in the old convict world. But the Trust hasn’t just set its sights on restoring the historic buildings located within the Governor’s once private domain…
Historic landscapes are also on the Trust’s agenda. A bush regeneration program restoring a remnant of the now-rare Sydney Coastal River-Flat Forest has led to the removal of introduced exotic trees and plants to allow native species to regenerate. Subsequently, visitors can experience part of the landscape as it was for the Darug people for at least 20,000 years on the “Aboriginal Landscape” trail. And, as the Trust’s Principal Program Officer (Cultural Heritage) Stephen Thompson informed us on Saturday, “The Gardens” precinct surrounding the George Street Gatehouse—where the convict hut remains were revealed—is also undergoing its own $2 million-metamorphosis into an “outdoor museum.” In the coming months, the Trust will be restoring and, where necessary, reconstructing features of this section of the park’s historic landscape; namely the early nineteenth-century Macquarie Convict Bridge and pond. Great care is being taken to ensure this work is completed using stonemason techniques and materials authentic to the convict era. Essentially, Thompson noted during our tour, visitors to this area of the park in the near future will be able to look at the colonial watercolour images and see some of those old features of the convict world in reality. Great Scott! It’s like time travel! (Hopefully, dear reader, you are not too young to recognise that Back to the Future reference!)
Broadly speaking, the “outdoor museum” has many benefits. It is, quite literally, “public history” insofar as it is presented in public open spaces; for professional historians, this means it is, along with social media platforms, ebooks, and apps, another option we have available for publishing or presenting our histories to the widest possible audience. After all, as Emeritus Professor John Hirst has told many a History Postgrad in his seminars at USYD, “If you’re going to the trouble of writing history, don’t you want people to READ it?” Some members of the community might be, for a variety of reasons, disinclined to read a history book or visit a museum in the form of an imposing architectural edifice, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on trying to reach them! We just need to tell our histories in a variety of ways.
Successful outdoor museums, such as Parramatta Park or the new Heritage Courtyard at the Parramatta Justice Precinct,** subtly blend in with both natural and public urban environments and, thus, have a greater capacity to gently engage diverse—even the most reluctant—members of the community in stories of the past. This is important work, if only because it can improve an individual’s sense of connection to the place in which they live. Moreover, we all learn better when we are stimulated by a different environment and kinaesthetic learning situations that force us to be outside breathing fresh air and moving around. Outdoor museums take the typically sedentary activity of studying History not just beyond a classroom, but beyond walls entirely.
* View of Governor’s House, Rosehill, Parramatta c1798. A convict hut is on the left. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales [a928407 / DG SSV1B/3] (Dixson Galleries) via Dictionary of Sydney.
** See my blog post “Parramatta’s Convict Huts” on my blog “The Old Parramattan” to read about and view images of the Heritage Courtyard at the Parramatta Justice Precinct.
Some social media accounts you may wish to follow:
Parramatta Park Trust: @ParraPark on Twitter and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/parrapark
GML Heritage: @gmlheritage on Instagram and their website: http://www.gml.com.au/
The Old Parramattan: @oldparramatta on Instagram and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/theoldparramattan
Photos below by Michaela Ann Cameron:
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