Small Changes to Avoid Major Loss: collaborative conservation practices at Rouse Hill House and Farm

By Cecilia Romero & Namrata Patel

Image 1. Screenshot from Small Changes to Avoid Major Loss: Collaborative Conservation Practices at Rouse Hill House and Farm showcasing one of the families living on the property. 


During Session 8 of the IIC Congress Sarah-Jane Rennie, Head of Collections Care at the Sydney Living Museum (hereafter SLM), warmly welcomed attendees to the Rouse Hill House and Farm. Rouse Hill Estate is one of the twelve sites managed by SLM, formerly known as The Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales.

Over 165 years, six generations of a single family occupied the house until it was acquired by the state government in 1978. Each generation that lived in Rouse Hill House has left its mark, never erasing the evidence of those who lived there before but instead adding to it, forming a richly textured series of interiors and landscapes. Built on a land that spans about 12.5 hectares the site comprises a house, a garden, old buildings and remnant farm lands. Over 18,000 items form part of the site collection ranging from car bodies, farm machinery, colonial furniture, paintings, music boxes, pianos, harmoniums and a 1960s television set.

In this blog post we present a summary of the talk presented by Rennie, sectioned into two parts. Firstly, we will give an overview of the presentation, highlighting the careful and ongoing traditional maintenance of Rouse Hill House and Farm. Secondly, we’ll discuss of the live Q&A that followed the presentation.

Collaborative Conservation Practices: a summary

One of the guidelines introduced by Sarah-Jane Rennie states: the conservation management plan emphasizes preservation rather than restoration and the conservation of the site as a whole”, and this is reflected on every decision taken at Rouse Hill Estate. Rennie described an extensive variety of treatments in which some form of intervention was necessary. She talked us through some of the tricky thought processes that inform an object’s treatment plan. Far from being a ‘stand-back-and-do-nothing’ policy, Rennie highlighted the challenges of maintaining properties like Rouse Hill House in a slightly deteriorated state instead of reverting everything back to an earlier period. When interventions are necessary, however, the Estate calls upon a number of locally sourced heritage professionals, from stonemasons to fence builders and carpenters.

Image 2. Screenshot from Small Changes to Avoid Major Loss: Collaborative Conservation Practices at Rouse Hill House and Farm showcasing Rouse Hill House and Farm.

In recent years one of the most significant changes to the surrounding area was the rerouting of Windsor road outside the property. The road was moved further from the edge of the site, allowing Rouse Hill Estate to gain some extra farmland and buildings. This in turn made it possible to provide school programs, visitor services and staff facilities. Also, Rouse Hill can now host a range of other activities such as the Artisan Autumn Fair and the Family Fun Fair.

In addition, Rennie underlined the importance of context in decision-making. To illustrate this, she considered the treatment of the Rose Arbour, which at the time was not in a good condition. The discovery of some photographs from the 1970’s revealed that the Rose Arbour was once in a good state and painted white. The team deduced that there was a tradition in renewing the Arbour and realized that this was something that they could reintroduce as part of its maintenance.

The thought processes behind treatments for on-site musical instruments was likewise interesting. The cases Rennie presented included that of a piano, piano player, a music box and a harmonium. Some objects presented damages that, upon consideration of the Conservation Management guidelines, resources and factoring in the total cost required to bring the instruments back to working condition, was not deemed appropriate for Rouse Hill to treat. In these cases, the museum sourced out identical instruments and recorded particular tunes being played, notably those favoured by the individuals that lived in the house. This intangible collection of heritage presents a new way for recreating soundscapes in which the instruments can be heard at any given moment.

Finally, Rennie brought attention to the importance of the objects as evidence and the value of future research. 

Image 3. Screenshot from Small Changes to Avoid Major Loss: Collaborative Conservation Practices at Rouse Hill House and Farm showcasing the treatment being done on the harmonium.

Concluding Q&A 

Sarah-Jane Rennie’s presentation concluded with a very interactive Q&A. We’d like to point out that although the mid-afternoon time-slot suited everybody else quite nicely, it meant that poor Sydney-based Rennie had to jump online at 2am in the morning (GMT+11)! 

Looking at the list of questions, it seems people were most interested in the SLMs ethos of preserving spirit of place over preserving the tangible evidence of a moment in time.  Rennie elaborated on this point, explaining that “…looking at the collection in a holistic way is more realistic than trying to be really regimented at holding [Rouse Hill House] at a particular moment in time”. When the SLM reflected on its 1986 Conservation Management Plan in 1997, they understood that although the term ‘spirit of place’ hadn’t yet been established, the concept was at the heart of what past stakeholders were trying to push in their efforts to conserve the structure of Rouse Hill House and Farm as a whole. 

During the Q&A Rennie also discussed some of the educational programmes that are carried out by the SLM community. Each of the twelve SLM properties runs a number of different schooling programmes. Now that COVID-19 is less of a threat in Sydney it’s uplifting to hear that school children are being admitted back into the property for the first time since March. 

Rennie expressed some excitement with the thought of preparing various experiential group excursions, an activity that must entertain the staff at Rouse Hill House and Farm to no end. Not only do the students attend class as it would have been in the 1800s (albeit “without being beaten”), but they also chip in with the everyday chores of 19th Century living: such as hanging the laundry on the line and feeding the chickens. Elizabeth Farm, another SLM property, even incorporates teachings around a woodfire. These teachings delve headfirst into sensory experience, for example in the handling and passing of knowledge around trading herbs and spices. In this instance kids are encouraged to crush, sniff, and taste the zesty seasonings on show, an all-inclusive method of learning. 

We’ll conclude our blog with a question that went by unanswered in the hopes that recording it here might inspire some response. We found Alberto Sanchez-Sanchez’s query about non-human agents and the preservation of the artefacts at Rouse Hill House worth noting. Sanchez-Sanchez asked whether Rennie and the rest of the SLM team had ever before considered this philosophical Segway into ethics. He exemplified the work of Caitlin DeSilvey called Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving. In it DeSilvey rethinks the care of certain vulnerable sites in terms of ecology and entropy. It certainly sounds like a bold new approach to heritage conservation, and embraces change in a way that seems to reflect the ethos of Sydney Living Museums. 

Image 1. Screenshot from Small Changes to Avoid Major Loss: Collaborative Conservation Practices at Rouse Hill House and Farm showcasing one of the rooms in Rouse Hill House.

You can learn more about the Rouse Hill House and Farm via the following Sydney Living Museums’ social channels:




About the authors:

Namrata Patel joined the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) in 2014 and is currently involved with the documentation, research and conservation of Indian tempera paintings. Namrata has provided exhibition support in various national and international exhibitions. She has been involved in many educational programs organised by the Museum Art Conservation Center. She coordinated “Stories in Miniatures”, a five city educational tour for Indian and German conservation specialists held in New Delhi, Jaipur, Mumbai, Kolkata and Hyderabad, in collaboration with the Goethe Institute, SKD Dresden and CSMVS. Under the Citi-CSMVS ConservArté Project, Namrata is currently involved in the conservation of iconic objects from the museum collection and is coordinating the CSMVS Museum Storage Reorganisation Programme. She is a recipient of Indian Conservation Fellowship at the National Gallery of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC, specialising in conservation of Indian tempera and paper paintings.

Cecilia Romero is a book and art conservator working and living in Buenos Aires. She has recently finished her bachelor degree in Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage from the National University of San Martin, IIPC – TAREA (Buenos Aires, Argentina), where she received a merit scholarship. Cecilia has participated in different conservation projects, including submitting articles for the yearbook of the Cultural Heritage Research Institute, TAREA, and acting as the guest speaker in early career conservation congresses. She currently works as a conservator and bookbinder in the Main Library and Documentation Centre at the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Urbanism (FADU), UBA. Cecilia also runs her own bookbinding and conservation studio.

Disclaimer: this article is intended for educational purposes, and does not purport to provide legal advice. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.

The authors would like to thank the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (IIC) for granting them the opportunity to review such a fascinating talk. 

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