A different type of house-museum

The cottage
The cottage

Near to where I grew up, in the middle of Canberra, Australia, is a small farmer’s cottage called Mugga Mugga. It was built in 1838, and is one the region’s oldest dwellings. Most people in Canberra drive past it without seeing it, set back from the road, with little more than a chimney visible as you drive past. It’s now a house-museum visited by school groups and a few visitors, and one of the few low-status dwellings you can visit and see filled with objects authentic to the house.

Authenticity is an important topic in heritage tourism, and one I want to explore further. According to Gable and Handler, in their work on authenticity and the heritage industry, the search for, or reclamation of, authenticity is a significant aspect of modern heritage tourism (See: Gable and Handler 1996).

While I did my undergrad in Art History and Curatorship at the Australian National University, I was a tour guide at Mugga. For 18 months I guided groups of people through this tiny cottage and watched them try and find nice things to say about the property. The relief in their faces when I pointed out that it wasn’t meant to be a tour of a grand property and instead was, in many ways, a monument to hardship, was always interesting to see. When we visit house-museums, we expect them to be grand, elegant mansions filled with plush soft furnishings and with red velvet ropes and security guards making sure we don’t touch with our sticky fingers. What we don’t expect is to walk into a home set up for its long-dead occupants to walk in at any time and know where everything is, and we don’t expect those occupants to have been poor. We also don’t expect the occupants to have curated their own lives and possessions. Mugga Mugga is that place and is quite extraordinary.

Every object is authentic to the location
Every object is authentic to the location

The family that came to be the champions of the property was the Curley family, who moved into the cottage in 1913. Let’s put it this way: Canberra’s centenary was 2013. When the Curleys moved in, there was nothing there but the promise that there would be the nation’s capital somewhere among the sheep paddocks. Mugga Mugga means ‘the place of many diamond snakes’ and thankfully I didn’t see any during my tours, but there must have been at some point. Their lives at the cottage were difficult and they faced environmental dangers, economic hardships and illness, and yet the cottage remained important to them to the degree that they fought to save it over and over again.

The Curley Family

The Curley’s story is one familiar to many Australians. Descended from Irish immigrants who arrived in the 1840s, the family moved around because of employment during the 1850s and 60s in the New South Wales area. The patriarch of the Curley family moved to the Australian Capital Territory (or what was to become that area) to work at Duntroon for the Campbell family. These words are well-known to Canberrans. Duntroon is now the Royal Military College, and the Campbell family gave their name to a suburb in the inner north.

Sylvia Curley was the eldest of the daughters and was born in 1898. She worked as a nurse for four decades, and was, by all accounts, a pioneer of health standards and hygiene far ahead of her time. The house

The living room into which you enter from the front door
The living room into which you enter from the front door

The property is a small stone cottage lacking light and ventilation. Yet, for all its simplicity, it was decorated with love and care by a family trying to make the best of things. The walls of Mugga Mugga are decorated with a distinctive landscape wallpaper which had been sent from Sydney around 1913/14. The wallpaper was badly damaged by damp and has been restored as best it can.

The furniture and possessions in the cottage are all authentic to the house. What you see when you go in there is exactly what the Curley family owned and in the places they put them. Sylvia would visit the house when it was a museum and move anything that had been moved back to where it should go – how’s that for authenticity!

The kitchen
The kitchen

The rooms are dark, and simple. Sylvia contracted diphtheria while training to be a nurse and spent a year in the front bedroom.

Between the kitchen and the cottage
Between the kitchen and the cottage

There is a separate kitchen building at the back of the cottage which contains the kitchen and dining room.


 The house-museum

In 1948, the three sisters of the Curley family decided never to sell the lease to the property and to allow it to be an education centre. Their foresight was remarkable. She said herself to a member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (the local government):

It is not for me that you will be doing this; there is nothing personal in it; it is for the future students and adults of Australia. (Foreword, The Long Road, p. v)

Sylvia is the person who held the idea to turn the home into a house-museum and she is the person who drove everything forward. She was, apparently, quite a formidable woman. She gifted the land to the ACT Government despite its great value to allow the children of Canberra to learn that life wasn’t always easy in this great city.

Mugga is definitely worth a visit, if you’re in Canberra and have done all the traditional museums, or if you’re interested in seeing the beginnings of what is now a quite affluent, educated city. It certainly wasn’t always this way in Canberra and we should be more proud of our humble beginnings.

More pictures can be found at the Canberra History Web, and more information can be found in A Long Journey: Duntroon, Mugga Mugga and Three Careers, written by Sylvia Curley. It’s a difficult read, written by Sylvia when she was at or around 100 years old, and jumps around a lot. It’s worth reading though if you’re interested in early Canberra for her forensic details of streets and families.


Works cited:

CURLEY, S. 1998. A Long Journey: Duntroon, Mugga Mugga and Three Careers, ACT Government.

GABLE, E. & HANDLER, R. 1996. After Authenticity at an American Heritage Site. American Anthropologist, 98, 568-578.


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