I love getting out of the classroom and experiencing the heritage and museums that Sydney has to offer! For our ‘engaging audiences’ class today we spent an hour at the Big Dig archaeology site and at Susannah Place Museum. For those, like me, still working out the geography of Sydney, both sites are located in The Rocks precinct. What struck me at both places was just how much The Rocks has transformed over time and what stories have been captured by the area’s heritage.
Our group started at the Big Dig. To be completely honest I had no idea this place existed. It’s called the Big Dig because a big dig happened here in 1994. So the name makes sense. Around 400 volunteers and 20 archaeologists excavated the area finding over 750, 000 artefacts. According to their website, these objects have “provided a rare insight into early urban life in Sydney”. So it’s basically a large excavation site that comes equipped with an education centre. It offers a large range of education programs catering to children as young as 5/6. It provides a great opportunity for students to see firsthand what archaeologists do, how they question the past, and how they interrogate the evidence. Most of the programs go one step further and allow students to become archaeologists and perform their own excavations.
After a little chat, we were taken out to examine the site and saw firsthand the foundations of the early housing. We had a quick course in how to read the site, what evidence to look for etc, and heard some great stories about The Rocks former inhabitants. It was fascinating to see how the stories were drawn from the archaeology. We then had the opportunity to handle some excavated objects.
After the Big Dig we walked across the road to Susannah Place. This museum, owned by Sydney Living Museum, consists of four preserved houses that have been conserved to showcase working class life. They are actually pretty incredible having housed families from 1840 until as late as 1990. Some of them have rooms decorated to reflect a particular period. For example, we saw an 1840s parlour and a 1940s bedroom. In the words of the curator who guided us around, the houses are meant to feed into the larger history of the area.
What was fantastic to hear at Susannah Place was how oral histories have been integrated into the tour. Because they were occupied until 1990 quite a few residents are still alive and willing to share their stories. I think this added just that little bit extra to the experience. This mix of tangible and intangible is what made both experiences today memorable (I know I say that a lot). Susannah Place had a slight edge in this regard because the stories had come from the women and men themselves and their memories will hopefully be preserved.
I found Susannah Place quite a powerful site. I can’t quite describe it, but the houses most definitely had a lot of character and you could imagine families actually being there and using the space. This kind of social history being preserved and presented is something that I am so grateful to see and have experienced today.