Review: The Rocks Discovery Museum, The Rocks, Sydney

The Rocks Discovery Museum
The Rocks Discovery Museum

Narrow, uneven and roughly hewn lane ways lead through the warm sandstone buildings of The Rocks, the historic area of Sydney now leading up to the Sydney Harbour Bridge and sitting alongside Circular Quay. Throughout its history, The Rocks has been many things. The traditional owners of the land were the Gadigal, who were part of the Darug language group. European contact very rapidly changed the area and The Rocks as we know it was founded shortly after settlement in 1788, becoming the formation we know today by 1810. Named for the gorgeous warm sandstone found in the area, The Rocks is known to have been a slum dominated by a gang called the Rocks Push. The area was considered an eyesore and an embarrassment and in the late 1960s plans for complete demolition were drawn up. A local residents group, the Rocks Residents Group, fought the plans and today the area is a commercial and tourist destination drawing on the unique character of early Australia.

The rich history of the area is the focus of the local museum, the Rocks Discovery Museum. Housed in a warehouse from the 1850s, the famous sandstone is a feature of the building and many original features are retained. Rather than give a guided tour of the museum, I want to draw out some of the innovative and thought-provoking aspects of the display and deconstruct them. If you’re around The Rocks area of Sydney, make sure this museum is on your list (along with the French patisserie and weekend markets).

The Gadigal, traditional owners of the land

The Gadigal room
The Gadigal room

The traditional owners of the land now known as The Rocks were the Gadigal (also written as Cadigal). The first room the visitor sees tells their story, but with an acknowledgement that we have large gaps in our knowledge, a dearth of material culture because of European trade networks

The story of The Rocks is told through four loosely chronological umbrellas:

  • Warrane (pre-1788)
  • Colony (1788–1820)
  • Port (1820–1900)
  • Transformations (1900–present)

The Indigenous ownership period, Warrane, tells the story of the landscape and geological history, as well as the story of the traditional owners. There is minimal use of European paintings and drawings, and a feature is made of archaeological finds and materials. Difficulties and challenges inherent in the display of the history of an oral culture whose traditions were wiped out are acknowledged:

Most of what is now known about the Cadigal comes from descriptions and paintings of the first British colonists. Such records are far from complete; they are interpretations of a culture the new settlers did not understand. Much of the Cadigal way of life would also have been hidden from these strangers. (The Rocks Discovery Museum, 2014)

The up-front wording of this information panel, in particular, the use of the word ‘interpretation’, is a positive step towards deconstructing the established Australian history canon. Acknowledging that the source of most of our information is biased will allow visitors (particularly children) to introduce skepticism to their reading of primary source texts.

An attempt to recontextualise the objects has been made
An attempt to recontextualise the objects has been made

In this gallery space, the large windows are covered with an opaque print of the ocean. In an earlier post, I talked about the (re)constructed past and the period room. This is a healthy alternative. It suggests an environmental context (mirrored by the audio of birdcall playing throughout this room) rather than presenting one.

A panel titled ‘Where are all the objects’ answers the visitors questions about the lack of material culture. The panel explains:

Very few objects exist from coastal Sydney from the contact period. Hundreds of Aboriginal objects were stolen or traded and taken back to Europe, but few have survived that can be identified as belonging to the Sydney clans. (The Rocks Discovery Museum, 2014)

Identifying the cause

Visiting Viking museums for my dissertation brought into my field of vision the significance of identifying and putting forward a cause for events. We need to know why the event or phenomenon occurred. In reality, identifying the origin of anything as mono-causal is problematic but in a museum it is important to give the visitor a reason why the rest of the exhibition is there. In the case of the Vikings, a common cause for the Viking Age is the revolution in ship-building technology. For the visitor, this is an understandable cause for migration.

In Australian history, the cause for European settlement is more straight-forward although it is rarely put as succinctly as at the Rocks Discovery Museum. The collapse of the American colonies following the War of Independence is cited as the motivating factor behind the selection of land in the Southern Hemisphere for a new colony. Interestingly, the British convicts sentenced to transportation to the Australian colony had a higher-than-expected level of literacy and were quite skilled. Having just lived in the UK, I could never quite explain to people there that Australia is actually quite proud of its convict history – it means that second chances work and has given us a healthy disdain for the class system.

Linking the establishment of Australia as a penal colony with the collapse of the American colony gives a global perspective, which is a theme I have seen in museums across Europe. As our world seemingly becomes smaller with technology making distances shorter, museums appear to be increasingly aware of drawing on this global perspective in order to communicate complex past events.

And so Australia was caught up in the European race to ‘claim’ what they considered undiscovered reaches of the world. (The Rocks Discovery Museum, 2014)

The ‘crisis of Australian history’, as Graeme Davison called it in his 2000 book The Use and Abuse of Australian History, is that the more we self-consciously draw upon it to sum up our national character, the more uncomfortable we become. There is a tension in Australian history (and museums) between patriotism and regret. This might be a controversial statement (most are when they deal with our history) but I think what we’ve needed for a long time is to rip the band-aid right off and look honestly at our history – all of it. We need to be honest with ourselves in order to move forward.

My memories of learning about Australia’s history in museums and school books are dominated by military men in ridiculous uniforms and large hats parading around the bush pointing at hills, while thin Aboriginal men in loincloths peer out from behind trees while holding spears. Colonialist, parochial, insulting, backward and worst of all – inaccurate.

Archaeological finds balance written sources

'Laying the table'
‘Laying the table’

As the late 18th century was such a literate time and there are so many records to draw upon, written historical sources have been overly relied upon in Australian history. It was refreshing to see this museum draw on archaeological finds to tell the story of European settlement. Plates and bowls (in the picture) have been minimally repaired, allowing the visitor to see that time has happened to these objects (a concept championed by the Vikingeskibsmuseet in Denmark).

The story of one settler is told by drawing on evidence from a well. The story of  George Cribb, a convict turned butcher who had been sentenced to 14 years transportation for the possession of a forged one pound note. He, and his accomplice Fanny Barnett, arrived in 1808 and married in 1811 (despite the fact that George already had a wife still in England). George supplied his butcher’s shop with animals slaughtered in his yard – the runoff of which poisoned the well, making it more valuable as a rubbish dump. George’s first wife Mary arrived in 1815, and Fanny departed. Mary died not long after though. George is known to have extended his business, and bought properties and extended his home (building rubble was found in the well). Another wife, another departure of a wife, and a civil suit seems to have finished him off and he disappears from the written record in 1827.

The story of George’s life is told through artefacts found in the well, including a shovel, broken china, construction tools and glassware.

Hidden voices

One really successful aspect of this museum is the attention paid to previously hidden voices. A story of contact is told through the relationship between Lieutenant William Dawes, an astronomer, artillery officer and scientist on the First Fleet and a local woman, Patyegarang. They taught each other their languages, and Lt. Dawes recorded their conversations, along with hundreds of words from Patyegarang’s language. It is the largest recorded list of Aboriginal words from Sydney.

Patyegarang told Lt. Dawes that although she was interested in English culture, she did not like the British settlers. She said that she, and her people, were angry that the British had taken their land, and that they were afraid of British guns. There are very few records of contemporary Indigenous attitudes.

Visit: The Rocks Discovery Museum, Kendall Lane, The Rocks, Sydney, Australia. (02) 9240 8680.

Next week: communicating archaeology through cake

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