Hyde Park Barracks - review by Rusty Compass
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Hyde Park Barracks

| 06 Feb 2021
Hyde Park Barracks
Macquarie St, Sydney
Check COVID hours
$24 Adults
06 Feb 2021

The 1819 Hyde Park Barracks is one of the oldest convict sites in Australia. It's a serious piece of history designed by convict architect Francis Greenway under Governor Lachlan Macquarie. Inside is a museum remembering convict life, the building's time as a women's immigration depot, and Indigenous dispossession.

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The governorship of Lachlan Macquarie between 1810 and 1821 is considered a momentous period in the evolution of New South Wales from penal colony to prosperous colonial outpost. The convict designed and built, Hyde Park Barracks is one of the best surviving remnants of the period, at the head of the street bearing Macquarie's name.

The former prison barracks and women's migration centre has long been a Sydney tourist attraction. In 2020, it reopened following an $18 million upgrade.

It should be one of the best museums in Sydney, in one of its finest historic buildings. But it's not quite there. The refurb fitted it out with fancy tech and made sure the old building was up to another century of operation. But it may have gone too far in the tech department.

Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney
 
Sleeping quarters - Hyde Park Barracks
Photo: Mark Bowyer Sleeping quarters - Hyde Park Barracks

If you're an old-fashioned museum junkie like me, you may find the straitjacket of the audio presentation stifling. Everything is automated and it works off sensors that follow you around. I found it clunky. Sometimes the sensors jumped between presentations.

You may crave some old-fashioned explanatory panels too. There is almost no text used and no opportunity for deeper exploration of subjects. It feels a little too smart.

I was also disappointed by the heavy-handed display cases in a heritage building that needs little decorative help.

It's a rigid immersive experience from the New York based people who did the World Trade Centre monument there.

It's possible to take a wander around the building without paying the admission fee - that'll still give you a pretty good sense of the historic space. At $24, admission is steep. A better option is to buy a Sydney Living Museums 30 day pass ($35) and visit a number of the museums and historic houses also managed by Sydney Living Museums, in addition to Hyde Park Barracks. There are several excellent smaller museums and historic houses around Sydney and the suburbs that are included in the pass. Unfortunately it doesn't cover every museum in the city.

Hyde Park Barracks is a World Heritage listed convict site. The exhibits cover the building's life as a convict barracks and a women's immigration centre. It also examines the dispossession of indigenous peoples - though there's a confusing lack of focus on the Indigenous experience in the immediate area around the original Sydney penal settlement.

Unless you're planning on visiting lots of Sydney Living Museums sites (recommended) and buying a pass, it may be better to just visit the building and the grounds without going in to the exhibition (I hate making that recommendation).

Allow 90 mins.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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