Sydney: Hyde Park Barracks Comes Alive

Immerse yourself in Sydney’s convict past at Hyde Park Barracks following its $18 million makeover.

For the first time in its 200-year history, the walls at Sydney’s historic Hyde Park Barracks can finally talk.

With the launch of new immersive audio and visual technology at the UNESCO heritage-listed site, the stories of nearly 100,000 convict prisoners, immigrant women and asylum inmates who lived at the barracks have been brought to life.

It’s all part of a year-long, $18 million makeover that recognises the barracks as one of Sydney’s most significant heritage sites, and where the formation of modern Australia actually started.

Local Projects, the design studio behind similar technology at the One World Observatory and the Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, has worked with Sydney Living Museums to breathe new life into the Barracks’ 4000-strong collection.

Visual displays of artefacts, including convict carpentry tools, are mixed with visual and sound installations across the three storey site.

Designed by convict architect Francis Greenway, the sandstone barracks at the  southern end of Macquarie Street was originally built to house convicts in 1819.

But throughout its history it has also served as an immigration depot, asylum, hospital, law courts and government offices.

In the 1990s it became a heritage museum, and now tells Australia’s convict story, its impact on First Nations people and the site’s early contribution to immigration.

More than 4,000 objects are on display in the new museum, including personal possessions that real people touched, used and wore over two centuries ago.

Archaeologists uncovered scraps of pipes, clothing fragments, coins and pages from prayer books between 1979 and 1984, and these relics (below) now form part of a major exhibition.

You can get a sense of the horrors and drudgery of convict life especially in the cramped dormitory (above), where rows of hammocks (two feet in breadth and seven feet in length) sit just three feet apart.

Visitors are even encouraged to lie in a hammock, or try on leg irons or convict clothes.

The troubled lives of Irish convicts, orphan girls and immigrants are commemorated in the Australian Monument to the Great Irish Famine, along the southern wall of the museum.

There’s also a searchable database where you can find the names and identities of some of the barracks early inmates.

Self guided audio tour

Visitors have 90 minutes to take audio-led, self-guided tours of the space.

The beauty of the technology is that it senses when you leave one room and enter another, so the storytelling is seamless and updates accordingly.

In the background of the recording, you’ll also hear what sounds like rats scurrying beneath the floorboards.

These rats played an important part in the history of the site, gathering scraps of fabric, paper and other materials to make their nests beneath the floorboards.

Without them, many of the priceless artefacts we now marvel at would have been lost forever.

Getting There

Hyde Park Barracks is at the southern end of Macquarie Street in the heart of Sydney, opposite Hyde Park and close to Martin Place railway station. 

It is open Thursday-Sunday, from 10am to 5pm.

Admission Prices: Adults $24, Concession $20, Child (5-15 years) $16, children under 5 enter free. Family tickets cost $64.


© 2020 Bernard O’Riordan (Travel Instinct). All Rights Reserved.

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