A trip to the compact but enlightening Museum of Sydney on the corner of Bridge and Phillip streets provides insight into the evolution of the New South Wales city as it stands today as well as into the conflicts resulting from settlement and colonization. Its diverse and immersive exhibits – there are five permanent displays as well as rotating exhibitions – allow you to experience the journey of Sydney’s beginnings, from the pre-settlement arrival of the First Fleet to Australia’s birth as a penal colony and beyond.
A deep dive into the history of Sydney is just an easy 15-minute stroll from your hotel, whether you’re staying at Hilton Sydney or West Hotel Sydney, Curio Collection by Hilton. Allow about two hours to explore the collection at your own pace, or chat with the friendly guides who are happy to provide information and assistance.
The Museum of Sydney is a modern exhibits archive that stands atop one of the most historic sites in the city – the inaugural Government House. Built in 1788 by first governor of New South Wales and First Fleet commander Arthur Phillip, it was then home to the next eight governors of New South Wales and the center of political affairs. The official home was abandoned and demolished in the 1840s, but in 1983, archaeologists unearthed the original footings. These relics are now protected and a featured part of the museum’s architecture, serving as the literal foundation of the museum itself, underground, and viewable through glass openings.
A sobering past
A highlight of your visit is sure to include the sobering and award-winning Edge of the Trees tribute to the Indigenous people, upon whose land the Museum of Sydney now sits. Twenty-nine imposing pillars, each representing one of the 29 Aboriginal clans from around Sydney, form a “forest” of contemplation, and walking among them, you can hear Aboriginal voices as they recount the names of lost places now consumed into the city’s metropolis.
Understanding Sydney’s history begins with knowledge of the First Fleet and its significance in establishing a permanent settlement. In 1788, 11 ships arrived at Botany Bay from England, six of them convict transports. Crimes of conviction included stealing (calico, banknotes, hens, silk cloaks, books), bigamy, prostitution and highway robbery. The First Fleet models displayed in the Museum of Sydney’s permanent collection are a 1:48 scale and were painstakingly researched and re-created over almost a decade. Don’t miss the remains of the privies – a glimpse at colonial sanitation – encased in glass display cases set into the pavement of the forecourt.
What lies beneath
Underneath the city streets and near the museum itself is the infamous Tank Stream. It’s worth taking the footpath to trace the route overground that has been delineated with plaques and special markings. Find the first one at the intersection of Pitt and Alfred streets near Wharf 1 of Circular Quay. The walk takes about an hour.
History tells us that when Commander Arthur Phillip noticed a small stream running into the sea at Sydney Cove, he sighed with relief and declared it home. Aboriginal people had been using this waterway for more than 40,000 years, according to excavations done near the original path of the stream.
As the settlement grew, so did the demand on this valuable resource. Strict rules went into place to keep it clean, and polluters were flogged. When the Government House was abandoned, protection for the Tank Stream was as well, and it fell into a state of disrepair, eventually becoming an open sewer. Now it has been covered over and serves as a stormwater channel. Twice a year, a ballot is drawn from thousands of entries for the opportunity to tour this underground heritage-listed relic – it’s one of the hottest tickets in town!
A peaceful protest
Friends of the First Government House Site, an association of individuals interested in protecting the grounds and their historical significance, were highly disappointed when their preferred name for the museum, ‘First Government House Museum’, was not chosen. A contingent of approximately 50 people held a peaceful demonstration, holding placards and having their say. The Heritage Houses Trust, now known as Sydney Living Museums, instead chose to call it what it is today: the Museum of Sydney.
The Museum of Sydney is just one of the many museums only a stone’s throw from the city’s Hilton hotels. Ask your friendly Hilton Concierge about other local museums and galleries. They can tell you about the latest exhibitions in town, too.
Museum of Sydney | Address: Corner Phillip & Bridge Streets, Sydney, NSW 2000, Australia | Tel: +61 (02) 92515988 | Website: sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/museum-of-sydney