Museums of Sydney - review by Rusty Compass
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Museums of Sydney

| 26 Jan 2021
26 Jan 2021

When travellers think Sydney, they're more likely to think beaches, the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House and outdoor life, than museums and galleries. Although Sydney has nothing to match the great museums of Europe or North America, its mostly smaller museums do a good job telling the extraordinary stories of the city. Big is not always better in the museum world. Check out our guide to the best of Sydney's museums.

Note: The information provided in this review was correct at time of publishing but may change. For final clarification please check with the relevant service

Sydney's museum situation is a tad confused. Many excellent museums and galleries are free. Others, of varying quality, have entrance fees - some on the high side. After wandering through the city's museums for this guide, I found lots of good stuff. But it did feel a little like the city has other priorities.

There is no citywide museum pass in Sydney, like you'll find in many international cities. Sydney Living Museums, an organisation that runs a number of museums and historic houses around town, has a 30 day pass for $35. It's worth picking up if you're planning on visiting more than one of their locations. Unfortunately that pass doesn't cover everything.

You could focus on the free museums and have a pretty rounded experience - especially during a short stay. This guide is focused on museums in and around the centre of Sydney.


Australian Museum

Australia's oldest and Sydney's largest museum, focused on natural history. There are also galleries dedicated to Indigenous history and culture. Free.

Australia's oldest museum (1827) is the largest and grandest of Sydney's museums. It was established in its current sandstone home in 1849, during the flourishing of ambitious museums in Europe. Its focus is natural history and science, with a special interest in Australia's unique flora and fauna.

The Australian Museum has evolved into an excellent modern museum with exhibits on Australia's First Peoples and Pacific Island communities. The original features in the building lend the place a sense of gravitas.

Prehistoric Australia gets a good run too.

A lot of work has gone into making the museum family friendly. The dinosaurs have been a hit since I was in primary school.....

Allow 2 hours.

Address: Corner Phillip and Bridge Streets, Sydney - closest train station, Museum.

Australian Museum, Sydney - in the grand tradition of 19th century museums - with contemporary themes.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Australian Museum, Sydney - in the grand tradition of 19th century museums - with contemporary themes.
Australian Museum, Sydney - in the grand tradition of 19th century museums - with contemporary themes.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Australian Museum, Sydney - in the grand tradition of 19th century museums - with contemporary themes.


Hyde Park Barracks

The most important convict remnant in the heart of Sydney, the 1819 Hyde Park Barracks is a landmark of the Governorship of Lachlan Macquarie and an immersive museum. Adults $24. (included in Sydney Living Museums pass $35).

Built in 1819 as a convict dormitory by convict labour and designed by convict architect Francis Greenway, Hyde Park Barracks is an outstanding remnant of Sydney's convict past. The building had multiple phases during more than a century in government use. In recent decades it's been a historical museum. It's just had an $18 million refurb.

The latest incarnation is built around a high-tech, immersive, sensor triggered, audio tour (English only).  It's not a bad introduction to Sydney's penal colony origins, women in the early colony and Indigenous dispossession. I found the absence of explanatory text a tad frustrating.

If you're only making a short visit to Sydney, you can take a wander around the building without paying the admission fee - I hate recommending that.

A better option is to visit a number of Sydney Living Museums' locations - there are several excellent smaller museums and historic houses - and pick up a pass for a month that includes Hyde Park Barracks.

Allow 90 mins.

For more on Hyde Park Barracks, click here

Address: Queens Square, Macquarie St, Sydney - closest train station, St James

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


Museum of Sydney

The name creates high expectations that aren't really met. Located on the plot of land where Sydney's original Government House stood, check on special exhibitions, which are usually very good. Adults $15. (included in Sydney Living Museums pass $35).

The Museum of Sydney sits on the site where the original colonial Government House was located - long before the tower that currently sits on the site was built. It feels like someone decided that there should be a museum on such an historic site - but never followed through with the money or the vision.

The name of the Museum of Sydney sets it up as a place charged with telling the stories of Sydney. It's a big call for any museum but especially in this small awkward space. It never had a chance.

Everything is well done. But it's constrained. It's a symbol of the low standing museums have in the contemporary Sydney.

If you have a Sydney Living Museums pass, stop by. The temporary exhibits are often very good. If you're time, constrained, this is one to skip.

Address: Cnr Phillip and Bridge Streets, Sydney, Nearest train - Wynyard or Circular Quay

Museum of Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Museum of Sydney
Museum of Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Museum of Sydney


State Library of New South Wales

Australia's oldest library is a good spot to take a break for some quiet reading. The small museum, regular exhibitions and art gallery are well worth a look. Free.

The State Library is the oldest library in Australia, dating back to 1826. The current main building was completed in 1910. Apart from being a library of great importance to Sydney (and a good place to stop for some reading or work), the State Library, aka. Mitchell Library, includes a small museum with regular exhibitions, and an art gallery that can easily devour a few hours of your time.

There's a great mix of historic portraiture, some of it quite famous, and landscapes. The temporary contemporary exhibitions will drag you back into the twenty first century.

This is a must-see if you're interested in Sydney's past and an impressive building - admission is free.

Allow 1 - 2 hours. Free

Address: Macquarie St and Hunter St, Sydney - closest train station, St James

State Library of New South Wales
Photo: Mark Bowyer State Library of New South Wales
State Library of New South Wales
Photo: Mark Bowyer State Library of New South Wales


Chau Chak Wing Museum

A new museum funded by Chinese Australian real estate developer and philanthropist Chau Chak Wing, does a superb job combining three old Sydney University museums under a single modern roof. Free.

Sydney's newest museum is one of its best - and it's free.

The Chau Chak Wing Museum opened in late 2020 and brings together, in a gleaming new complex, Sydney University's three old museums. It's a diverse experience across 4 floors. There's everything from contemporary art to ancient Egypt and the Mediterranean to Australian natural history, as well as temporary exhibits.

For more on the Chau Chak Wing Museum, click here.

Address: Sydney University, near main entrance off Parramatta Rd, Camperdown Closest train stations Redfern or Central.

Chau Chak Wing Museum, Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Chau Chak Wing Museum, Sydney
Chau Chak Wing Museum, Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Chau Chak Wing Museum, Sydney


Australian National Maritime Museum

Australia's European history is a maritime history so there's lots to work with here. There are ships and a submarine in Darling Harbour and exhibits in the museum interior space. Interior free. To visit the floating exhibits, a $27 ticket is required.

The Australian National Maritime Museum is a mix of floating vessels large and small, moored on picturesque Darling Harbour, and a vast exhibition space with a collection of maritime exhibits covering the European discovery of New Holland, and the exploration and mapping of the Australian continent. The exhibitions are free and excellent. Tickets are required to board the vessels in the floating collection.

The museum takes a broad view of the maritime theme. Among the ships docked is a faithful replica of The Endeavour, a Vietnamese refugee boat, a navy ship and submarine.

Address: 2 Murray St, Darling Harbour. Closest train, Town Hall

National Maritime Museum, Sydney, Endeavour replica
Photo: Mark Bowyer National Maritime Museum, Sydney, Endeavour replica
National Maritime Museum, Sydney - maps collection
Photo: Mark Bowyer National Maritime Museum, Sydney - maps collection


Police and Justice Museum

Great idea for a museum in the former penal colony of Sydney, in an old police station by Circular Quay. Digs into Sydney's crime history. Adults $15. (included in Sydney Living Museums pass $35).

There's nothing like a good themed museum and in the former penal settlement of Sydney, a Police and Justice Museum seems especially fitting. This is an excellent break from the usual museum fair. A former police station with its cells and courts, has been converted into a museum of the city's crime history.

Located right by Circular Quay in a heritage listed building that commenced operations in the 1850s, the Police and Justice Museum delves into the city's dark past and includes exhibits from bushrangers and other notorious criminals from the city's rich catalogue of crime.

Recent white collar criminals and Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) cases are not included in the exhibition - space is limited.

Address: Cnr Albert and Phillip St, Circular Quay - nearest train station, Circular Quay

Justice and Police Museum, Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Justice and Police Museum, Sydney
Justice and Police Museum, Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Justice and Police Museum, Sydney


Powerhouse Museum MAAS

The Powerhouse Museum - or Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences - is Sydney's museum tribute to industrial science and technology. It's a feast of industrial retro. The setting, in an old tram powerhouse (hence the name), is enough reason for a visit. There are some classic bits of Australian industrial history on display, as well as temporary exhibitions on design and technology.

I love wonderful old industrial spaces like the Powerhouse Museum. I could spend hours looking over old bits of industrial design and heavy machinery and the warehouses in which they operated. If you're the same, head down to the Powerhouse for a look. You'll be pleased that the museum survived a brush with death in 2020. It was facing closure before the state government changed its mind.

The old trains and steam engines are a highlight. The first steam train to operate in New South Wales in the 1850s, is among the exhibits.

The "What's in Store" exhibition, focused on the corner store and retail, is nicely done too - though I seem to recall this from a previous visit almost 2 decades ago.

Like many Sydney museums, The Powerhouse could do with some fresh ideas and money. It feels a tad tired. It may not yet have recovered from its near brush with death in 2020. It doesn't even seem to be trying to be in the same league as other similar museums around the world. But I enjoyed my visit nonetheless. It's well setup for families.

For more on the Powerhouse Museum, head over to our listing here.

Address: 500 Harris St, Ultimo

Powerhouse Museum, Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Powerhouse Museum, Sydney
Powerhouse Museum, Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Powerhouse Museum, Sydney




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