The Hyde Park Barracks Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site, was the administrative hub for Britain’s transportation program, moving convicts to Australia as forced labor for building the colony. We were engaged to transform the Museum through the telling of personal stories in ways that would allow connection to past inhabitants of the Barracks, and to forefront the impact of the Barracks on Indigenous populations. Our solution featured cutting-edge visitor tracking technology and an immersive audio experience to engage and captivate visitors as they move through the historic building.
Our intent was to allow the site itself to speak. Because nothing could be fixed to the building’s heritage fabric, we pulled our exhibits away from the walls, creating a tension between historic material and modern aesthetic and allowing each to breathe. And we built a history museum with no text panels: instead, we developed an immersive audio guide that unfolds across the spaces of the museum in narrative and environmental soundscapes.
Together our firm and Sydney Living Museums has delivered a unique, future-facing visitor experience. Instead of traditional text panels, the museum offers a groundbreaking audio tour that boasts one of the most accurate real-time location systems ever used in a museum setting. Through state-of-the-art bluetooth audio technology and location-tracking software, the narrative unfolds for visitors as they move through the galleries. Passing through the former sleeping quarters, they might hear the creak of floorboards, rats scurrying and convicts playing an illicit game of cards. Layered with these rich soundscapes are first-hand accounts based on real people and situations. Triggering media programs through proximity, seamlessly, visitors might animate a panorama of historical vignettes. So the site and its many stories come to life over time and with the presence of people—a visceral means of learning and connecting emotionally with the subject matter. Over 100 audio stories can be heard across the galleries, layered with environmental soundscapes that bring the site to life.
In addition, the exhibition showcases the Barracks’ globally significant archaeological collection, displaying more than 4000 original objects, many of them never before seen by the public. The collection of items worn and touched, treasured or discarded by former residents is one of the best preserved examples of 19th century institutional life anywhere in the world. Among the objects featured are a nearly intact convict shirt, thousands of clay pipe fragments, sewing paraphernalia, and 14 rat carcasses—the desiccated remains of the Barracks’ other residents.
By including multiple perspectives—convict, immigrant, institutional, Aboriginal—the exhibition embraces a new way of telling of Australia’s history, ensuring that Indigenous voices are included, that Aboriginal ownership is acknowledged, and that the legacy of colonialism is examined.
In ‘The Journey’, large projection scrims, hung in a boat-like elliptic form, immerse the visitor in swelling waves accompanied by an ambient soundscape . A first-person audio account relates the convict experience of transportation to Sydney: fear of the unknown and sadness about lost relationships and separation from home.
In ‘Convicts Colony’, a projected panorama recreates Sydney in 1815. Here, a visitor’s location is tracked and activates animated vignettes within the historical image, including depictions of convicts, Aboriginal presence and trade, and other scenes across town.
Showcases in ‘Meet the Convicts’ display the convicts’ trade-specific tools and an interactive projects convict tattoos onto the floor; visitors can “catch” the projections and see them superimposed on their own bodies.
In ‘Building Sydney’ and ‘Expanding the Colony’, a sculptural form spans two galleries, connecting a series of detailed 1:100 scale models that illustrate scenes of convict labour in Sydney and at the frontier, depicting the impact of this activity as it drove the dispossession of and violence against Aboriginal people. Multiple apertures allow for different perspectives and many stories are told in the words of Aboriginal communities still impacted by this history today. as.
The tension between institutional control and convict defiance is expressed in ‘Tightening the Grip’ and ‘A World of Pain’. A large-scale, undulating ribbon connects the two galleries; the top side represents an institutional perspective, while the underside depicts the convict experience; the form intersects showcases of artifacts from the most brutal years of the convict system.
‘Violence at the Frontier’ reckons with colonial Australia’s past. An arrangement of nine pillars creates an open circle in the center of the gallery while a 360-degree ambient media program acknowledges violence perpetrated by convicts and settlers against Aboriginal people through the commemoration of a brutal massacre. The narrative is spoken in Gamilaraay and English.
In ‘Sydney 1848’, as visitors approach a sketch of Sydney in 1830, it comes to life, filling in and coming into full color to reveal a panoramic view of the modernising city in 1848, offering a lively visual transformation of Sydney as it sheds its convict past.
‘New Beginnings’ and ‘Shelter and Care’ brings young immigrant women and destitute and ill women sheltered in the Barracks after 1848 poignantly to life alongside the remarkably preserved archaeological collection. In the last room on human-scale screens, descendants of convicts, immigrant women and Aboriginal people reflect on the legacy of the Barracks and its meaning today.