Not every backpacker is a party animal, or a bucketlist traveller, some of us are geeks, and so I thought I’d write a guide for people looking for places to geek out in Sydney.
The State Library of New South Wales
The State Library of New South Wales is probably one of the last places you’d expect to see a backpacker, before I left for Australia I’d read that libraries alongside McDonald’s were the best places to use free WiFi. Of course the WiFi is a perk, but truth be told the State Library is one of my favourite places in Sydney.
From the outside the Library is a grand building, but on the inside it is possibly the most beautiful library I have ever seen. The main reading room is insanely gorgeous, it looks a bit like if the great hall of the British Museum and Founder’s Library collided.
Upstairs the library has an amazing exhibition of Australian artefacts, ranging from convict’s shackles to a Roman coin found in Tasmania, as well as seasonal exhibits like the ‘Planting Dreams’ exhibition that is currently being held in the library. The exhibition focuses on Australian flora and fauna, Australia’s green places and its pastoral history, which taught me a lot about the importance of the environment and nature in Australian culture and art.
If you walk down the stairs in the reading room you enter the modern section of the library, which has little historical displays featuring artefacts from Captain Cook’s voyage to Australia. These bite size exhibits are cool to glance at on your way through to the library’s cafe and gift shop, which I have visited a couple of times, and today I had lunch with a parrot.
If you’re a nerd like me, or if you fancy a free day out go and check out the State Library. It’s a pretty neat place to pass a couple of hours, and you don’t even have to sign in to use the WiFi!
Hyde Park Barracks Museum
If you’re a museum junkie like me you definitely need to check out the Hyde Park Barracks!
Australia’s history is relatively short, and if you’re visiting Australia from England you may be aware of Australia being the place where British convicts were transported in the 1800s. The Hyde Park Barracks focuses on the convict history of Australia, as the barracks were built to house convicts under Governor MacQuarie. However it also housed Irish female emigrants and acted as a court house during Australia’s early colonial history.
The Barracks is a three storey building and each floor is dedicated to a specific period of the building’s history. Starting with convict history on the ground floor where the exhibits are carefully designed to educate visitors on the process of transportation, the life of convicts in the barracks, and the settlement of freed convicts in New South Wales.
The most interesting part of this floor was the areas discussing the lives of Aboriginals at this point in Australia’s history. The museum presented a fairly balanced account of how Aboriginals were affected by the influx of convicts, suggesting that interactions between settlers, convicts and Aboriginals were fairly good to begin with. There is some reference made to the difficulties the Aboriginals faced as a result of the convict settlement, however the museum tended to go for a fairly optimistic approach, which I’m not sure is entirely accurate.
The second floor explores the barracks use as a depot for female emigrants in the 1900s, most of these women were from Ireland and often travelled alone to create a new life in Australia. The design of this particular exhibit is really creative, as it shows the layout of the room that the women stayed in, alongside models of their wooden luggage boxes that they brought with them. Some of the boxes can be opened, and the lids explain the story behind the artefacts contained in the boxes. Most of the artefacts were found by archaeologists excavating under the floor boards, where most of the items had been collected by rats to make their nests.
The curator of the museum has made an effort to emphasise the importance of the role played by rats in the history of the barracks, down the hallway from the women’s dorm is a room dedicated to the excavation of the floorboards, and the artefacts found in rats nests. Displaying the stages of artefact recovery from excavating the floorboards, to categorising the artefacts, to what pieces made the exhibitions and surplus which went into storage. I loved this room because it gave a perfect visual guide on the role of a historian/ archaeologist in the development of a museum, which I’d never seen done before.
The final floor addresses the barracks role as a law court, you can check the list of convicts on display to see if any of your relatives were tried there, and you can go and lay in a hammock in a room made up to be like a convicts’ sleeping quarters.
The Australian Museum is basically Sydney’s Natural History Museum, standard entry is $16 which is roughly a tenner. It’s worth visiting the museum just to see the exhibition on the First Australians, which was absolutely fantastic at explaining the history of the Aboriginals in Australia, whilst I was visiting there was a guided talk that I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on whilst looking at the displays. If you have a chance to visit the museum, I’d seriously suggest trying to get a place on the guided talk, as that way you get to visit the exhibit whilst hearing a first hand account of life in Australia as an Aboriginal.
The museum also hosts special exhibitions which costs an additional $8 to visit. When I visited the exhibition was ‘Spiders: Alive and Deadly’. Dedicated to Australia’s oldest and widely feared inhabitants. I had my reservations about visiting the exhibition as I’m not the biggest fan of spiders, and couldn’t manage looking at an Australian spider identification chart before I came to Sydney. However the exhibition was very well done considering it’s very unpopular and mildly unpleasant focus, and included live specimens and the opportunity to see a spider have its venom ‘milked’. By the end of the exhibition I had a new found appreciation for spiders and felt almost comfortable around the arachnids.
The rest of the museum is dedicated to Australia’s natural history, from dinosaurs to native animals, to all the deadly sea creatures. I passed my time in this part of the museum taking snapchats of the stuffed animals and adding funny captions. The one thing I love more than taking a museum uber seriously, is not taking a museum seriously.
My final suggestion for any geeks hitting up Sydney is to go and visit Mrs MacQuarie’s chair. There’s nothing I love more than walking and obscure points of historical interest, and Mrs MacQuarie’s chair encompasses both those things.
Set just outside the Royal Botanical gardens, Mrs MacQuarie’s chair is a a chair that Governor MacQuarie had made for his wife whilst the main road was being constructed. The MacQuaries were responsible for a massive building project in Sydney, and the seat was made for Mrs MacQuarie because she used to like looking out across the harbour. The view from the chair is stunning, and the history behind the chair is very cute.
I hope this geeky guide helps anyone looking for some alternative places to visit alongside Sydney’s main attractions.