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Public program and conservation at Government House

From Insites, Newsletter of the Historic Houses Trust of NSW, Spring 1998

Government House opened to the public under the auspices of the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales in March 1996. Since then over 300 000 people have visited the house, many of them enjoying the diverse cultural events and functions that occur at the property.

Contrary to preconceptions that the changes would transform the building into a ‘lifeless museum’, Government House remains very much a ‘working house’. The staff, supported by a large force of volunteer guides, service a busy interpretative programme for the buildings, collection and garden. The programme includes regular guided tours of the State Rooms and the first floor exhibition rooms from Friday to Sunday. School groups, primary and secondary, are catered for with two special education programmes designed to introduce the history of the house and its collections.

Special tours have also been designed for the visually handicapped using an audio tape commentary and guides written in braille. Several specialist tours are also available with a trained guide able to sign in AUSLAN.

The Trust has managed this policy of public access without curtailment or interruption to the Governor's official duties. In fact, there is a strong continuing relationship between the Governor, The Hon Gordon Samuels A.C., and the site, as all functions and activities must have his approval. Vice-Regal use has priority and this is reflected in the regular programme of functions and activities including concerts, dinners, receptions, award ceremonies, diplomatic calls, and investitures.

The programme of public access also allows eligible organisations such as cultural bodies, non-profit community groups, government departments, major charities and religious organisations to use Government House for special functions and fundraising activities. Bookings for events are at capacity and it is not uncommon for the house to host several major functions in a day.

In late 1996 the Premier announced the launch of a major cultural programme aimed at developing Government House as a 'centre of lively and regular artistic activity' which would form part of a new cultural precinct linked to the Conservatorium of Music and the Opera House. As a consequence the Trust introduced a programme of music, dance, theatre, lectures, exhibitions and other cultural events which has been attended by more than 28 000 people. A series of concerts by leading chamber music ensembles, including the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and The Sydney Soloists, has established the ballroom at Government House as Sydney's newest and most sought after chamber music venue. Other musical tastes have also been catered for with opera, jazz, and a variety of ethnic musical performances, both inside and outside the house. An inaugural artist-in-residence prgramme based in The Chalet was awarded to the writer Paula Abood earlier this year. An exhibition of glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly was installed in the gardens and this year another major installation is planned for the Biennale of Sydney.

The recent exhibition ‘In the Interest of Bennelong’, curated by ATSIC and the NSW Community Arts Association, was a moving contribution to, and an appropriate background for the events that took place at Government House to commemorate National Sorry Day. Photographs, text and indigenous art explored the themes of the Stolen Generations: acknowledgment, unity and commitment.

It has been a challenge for the Trust to develop procedures for the management of this wide variety of activity whilst preparing a conservation and management plan to address the long term future of the property. The latter was achieved in August 1997 when the plan was approved by the Premier: This two volume document included the most comprehensive analysis of the history of the property ever produced and added immeasurably to our understanding of its history and development. This document, with its emphasis on the conservation needs of the property, now guides all activity at Government House.

Given the size, scale and complex nature of the property and its uses, the Trust is constantly challenged to find a balance between its conservation needs and the demands of public access. It is essential to have staff with appropriate curatorial expertise and knowledge of building conservation, collections, interior presentation and garden conservation, as well as expertise in providing hospitality and cultural activity of the highest standard.

This managerial role also requires considerable liaison with His Excellency The Governor, The Office of the Governor, The Premier's Department, the Department of Public Works and Services and the Royal Botanic Gardens, which maintains the ground.

Much of the conservation work on the building, its interiors arid collections is not readily visible. This is partly because the Trust has put in place a policy that emphasises regular inspection and monitoring, and regular maintenance which ensures that the need for major work is limited. This methodology favours maintaining the integrity and patina of the original fabric.

Work over the past two years has included the stabilisation of the front stone facade of the house, the conservation of the 1860s sandstone dairy and the retaining walls of the western and eastern terraces. Internally the leadlight coats-of-arms have been conserved as have the painted canvas coats-of-arms of the early Governors-General of Australia. The encaustic tile floor of the outer hall has been restored. Many pictures, objects and pieces of furniture have undergone repair and conservation treatment. This has resulted in a substantial increase in the collections on public display.

The current major focus is on assessing, cleaning, cataloguing and valuing the collections. To date, over 8 500 artefacts have been processed with a value of many millions of dollars. At this point only a preliminary study has been possible and more extensive research is required to determine the history of the collections, details of their makers and previous owners. Yet some wonderful discoveries have been made including the realisation that the furniture collection is one of the most representative of NSW cabinet makers in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Oral history research plays a vital role in our aim to put women, children and staff back into the history of the site. Recent interviews have been conducted with descendants of former Governors Sir Dudley de Chair, Sir John Northcott and Lord Wakehurst.

Their memories of life at Government House have been recorded and family photographs, documents and memorabilia have been generously donated. Currently, Sir Roden Cutler, the State's longest serving Governor, who has also recorded extensive interviews, is arranging an important donation of documents, uniforms and memorabilia.

Research has resulted in the production of a comprehensive guide book, information brochures and exhibition checklists. Greater interest in the collection is being developed through lectures, specialist tours, loans to special exhibitions and the publication of articles in the popular and academic press.

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