Sydney Travel Guide


Culture vulture: Sydney's museums and art galleries
Start your Sydney art trawl at the city's highest natural point, Observatory Hill - immediately to the west of the Harbour Bridge - with a spectacular view of Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour's official name).

Then duck into the nearby National Trust Centre where you'll find the S H Ervin Gallery, a non-commercial art gallery, specialising in the best Australian figurative art.

An easy stroll away, down the hill to Circular Quay, is the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) (on George St. North) which displays only contemporary art works, both Australian and international. The exhibitions are often better than the disjointed display spaces in this 1940s art deco building. At the opposite (eastern) end of Circular Quay is the fascinating Justice and Police Museum in the historic former Phillip Street police station - see the clobber of real cops, robbers and convicts.

Five minutes' taxi ride from The Quay, up on Macquarie Street, is The Mint Museum, a restored wing of the 1816 'Rum Hospital'. In 1851 this building became the first branch of the Royal Mint outside London, and produced gold coins until 1927. It is now a museum of Australian decorative arts, coins and stamps.

The Mint's neighbouring Georgian-style Hyde Park Barracks was commissioned by Governor Macquarie in 1819 and designed by convict architect Francis Greenway. It is now a museum of the social history of NSW from convict days to the 1950s, with displays on themes of immigration, public celebrations and the founding of Australia.

A short walk east across the Domain parkland from Macquarie Street brings you to the Art Gallery of NSW (in Art Gallery Road). Its Classical facade belies the flexibility and breadth of the Australian, international and Asian collections within.

There are surprises and masterpieces lurking everywhere among its galleries. Of particular interest are fine works by Australian artists such as Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Conrad Martens, Sydney Nolan, Brett Whiteley, Fred Williams and Margaret Preston.

The Australian Museum (corner of William and College Streets) holds the country's largest collection of natural history (marine life, birds, mammals, fossils, minerals) exhibits and excellent Aboriginal displays. Admission is free.

Across town, just west of Darling Harbour, is the fascinating Powerhouse Museum (on Harris St, Ultimo). This 1899 power station and former tram depot was renovated to house the huge collection of the Museum of Applied Art and Science. Dynamic displays involve the visitor in 'hands-on' experiences. Five major themes - science, technology, decorative arts and social history - encompass such apparitions as the state's first train engine, bush kitchens and even a space shuttle. Allow plenty of time for this one, especially if you have kids in tow.

Darling Harbour also has a nautical museum on its western shore. Beneath the sail-like roofs of the National Maritime Museum is an intelligent and accessible recreation of Australia's long maritime history.

Sydney's numerous commercial art galleries cater for most tastes in art, from Outback kitsch to postmodern obsessive. Check the Sydney Morning Herald's listings on Friday (Metro section) or Saturday for details, or see the Yellow Pages telephone book. Many private galleries are located in the Paddington-Woollahra area. For quality contemporary Australian painting, sculpture and craft, check the following - Robin Gibson, Australian Galleries, Roslyn Oxley, Stills (photography), Mori, Michael Nagy, Mary Place, Watters, Hogarth, Old Bakery, Gallery VC, Ivan Dougherty and the Glass Artists' galleries.

Most visitors are interested in Aboriginal art, and the best traditional works on public display are found in the Art Gallery of NSW and the Australian Museum. Purchasable work - some of it touristic - such as bark paintings and didgeridoos may be found in gift shops around The Rocks. For better quality work, head for Hogarth Galleries (Paddington), the Aboriginal Art Shop (Opera House) and Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-op (Annandale).

Despite the fact that Sydney city has its back turned firmly to the inland, much of life and art in the early colony of New South Wales took place west of the city at Parramatta. Old Government House, built in 1790, was the official vice-regal country residence and remains the country's oldest public building. Located in Parramatta Park, it is now a museum containing l9th-century Australian furniture.

Elizabeth Farm House (in Alice St) was established in 1793 and was the residence of merino sheep farmers, John and Elizabeth Macarthur.

Macarthur dominated colonial society and his house was an important social centre for the colony. Today it is a museum furnished in early colonial style.

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