Hyde Park Barracks Museum — World Heritage listed
In July 2010, a meeting of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in Brazil placed the Hyde Park Barracks on the World Heritage List.
Hyde Park Barracks Museum. Photograph Gary Crockett.
The Hyde Park Barracks Museum is joined by ten other important Australian convict sites in a rare ‘group nomination’. The submission was made by the Commonwealth government. Until now, no other sites of convict transportation have made it onto the list. As a group, they place Australia’s convict history within the larger process of European expansion and part of a global story.
The Australian Convict Sites, scattered across the mainland, Tasmania and Norfolk Island, paint a powerful picture of human suffering and determination: involving thousands of lives swept along in the race for colonial territory, particularly in the south Pacific during the 18th and 19th centuries. The transportation of British convicts to Australia from 1787 to 1868 was an unusually long lasting, complex and ambitious operation, compared to the efforts of rival European powers. The figure of around 166,000 convicts, transported on more than 840 ships, over eight decades, remains unmatched. And here was the only attempt to grow a new society from the labour of transported prisoners.
The sites also illustrate an upheaval of new ideas on crime and punishment emerging in Britain in the mid 19th century. Among these were changes in prison design and radical theories on prisoner reform. Convicts in Australia faced an extraordinary range of penal systems and institutional models, from private assignment, government farms, female factories, chain gangs and penal settlements to probation stations, island prisons and penitentiaries.
Convict transportation, like slavery and bonded labour, had been used for centuries to establish colonial outposts on distant shores, usually with an eye to strategic and commercial opportunities. It was convict transportation alone that combined colony building with systematic measures to curb crime and early experiments in parole. For convicts sent to Australia there was a glimmer of hope in hell. Having endured their sentence and served their time, Australian convicts were usually able to re-enter the society they helped establish. In the process, cultures, attitudes and traditions transported along with convicts filtered into Australian life.
St James Church, Supreme Court and Hyde Park 1840s, watercolour, J. Ellis, HHT Collection
The World Heritage listing of Hyde Park Barracks confirms its global significance. As the settlement’s first substantial convict establishment, built in 1819 to secure the colony’s future, the Barracks stood at the centre of the world’s largest, longest and diverse system of transported convict labour. It alone saw at least 50,000 convicts pass through its gates before 1848. Ideas expressed in the building’s architecture and evolving attitudes towards the treatment of its occupants drove colonial ambitions and transformed the modern world. The building’s high quality construction, location and capacity for reuse helped it survive. It’s now a contemporary museum, telling its own story.
Intriguingly, Australians have only come to terms with their convict history in the last few decades. Not so long ago, talk of Australia’s shackled beginnings was taboo. What was once a source of embarrassment is now regarded as a cultural inheritance. As for the convict artefacts, buildings and monuments, the once neglected ruins and relics have become must-see attractions. And fittingly, a select group of Australian Convict Sites now enjoys the prestige, protection and international profile, as well as the obligations, that flow from World Heritage listing.