I’m in Sydney & the surrounding area for the week, visiting the wonderful Theresa, having a much-needed mini-holiday with Mr D, and, most importantly, speaking in conjunction with the ‘Tales from the East: India & New South Wales‘ exhibition at Old Government House, Parramatta, Sydney.
I was incredibly excited about getting the opportunity to visit Old Government House. It’s the oldest public building in Australia and one of the few authentic examples of Georgian architectures in the Antipodes. It’s also an extremely important structure from a historical standpoint. It’s strongly linked to both Australia’s convict and colonial history, and to Governor Lachlan Macquarie. Macquarie is sometimes called the ‘Father of Australia’. While his legacy is chequered, he was undeniably central to shaping Sydney & New South Wales general trajectory in its formative years as a colony.
He and his wife Elizabeth were also responsible for expanding Old Government House to its current structure. The house is furnished as it would have been under their residence, in the style of the 1820s.
Theresa and I were dressed a bit earlier: she in 1770s, I in ca. 1800. Even though we were slightly anachronistic, we felt very much at home in the rooms, which tried to bring European grandeur to the far corners of the world.
The attempts at grandeur are, in a way, even better than grandeur itself would be. Note the black and white floor in the photo two up: wood painted to give the effect of tiles. It mimics the elegant entries of England as closely as possible, within the constraints of Australia, the available materials, and the available builders (convicts) and architects (probably ex convicts).
The museum is both a historic space, and an exhibition venue that focuses on stories relevant to the building’s past. It’s a difficult balance to achieve: ensuring that the exhibitions keep the house updated, relevant, and perpetually interesting, but don’t detract from the sense of stepping into history that you feel in the best historical buildings. Old Government House does a fantastic job of both.
‘Tales from the East’ was partly inspired by Macquarie’s experiences in India prior to his appointment to Australia. It also included a general look at ways in which India has influenced and interacted with Australia, and profiles of modern Desi Australians. It managed to use all these strands of history, and to intertwine them into the layout and general history of the house seamlessly. Each story support and built on the others.
Amazingly, Old Government House also pulls this off with no national funding – a fact I was absolutely gobsmacked to learn. Not only is it on the State and National Heritage Registers, Old Government House and the surrounding Domain are both on the UNESCO World Heritage List as Australian Convict Sites. It’s scandalous that it is funded by a friends organisation and its own income from events.
If you’re in Sydney, I highly recommend a visit. Parramatta is an quick train ride away from the CBD. The Domain and Old Government House are an easy walk from the train station.
In addition to the house itself, the Domain is just gorgeous. There are lawns sloping down to the river, and flocks of sulphur crested cockatoos, rainbow lorikeets, and other birds. I heard rumours of water dragons down by the river, but we didn’t make it that far.
There is an excellent restaurant just across the courtyard from OGH, and cute tearooms at the gatehouse that do light meals and high tea.
I can’t promise that you’ll have quite as much fun as Theresa and I did frolicking around Old Government House in period attire, but I can promise that you’ll get to see an incredibly important part of Australian history, beautifully presented.
(And yes, my dress is new! I made a thing! More about it in another blog post in a few days!).