Elizabeth Farm museum at 40

This year Elizabeth Farm celebrates 40 years open to the public as a house museum!

Thousands of people a year enjoy visiting Elizabeth Farm, a house museum located in Parramatta, on Dharug Country. Built in 1793 for colonists John and Elizabeth Macarthur and their growing family, Elizabeth Farm is the earliest surviving colonial homestead in Australia. The property was in private ownership from the time it was built until the late 1970s, when it was acquired by the NSW Government. It was then that a process began to transform Elizabeth Farm into the public museum we know and love today.

The push for Elizabeth Farm to be preserved for future generations and opened as a public museum was instigated by Edith, Nona and Ruth Swann, who had lived at the house since it was purchased by their father, William, in 1904.

After spending much of their lives at Elizabeth Farm, the sisters decided in 1967 to advertise the property for sale. They were determined that it should be sold to a body that would ensure its survival and, ideally, open the house to the public. The Elizabeth Farm Trust, an independent community-based group, acquired the property with the intention of restoring the house and providing public access.

Fundraising and initial conservation works then began, but the full task of preserving Elizabeth Farm proved beyond the capacity of the well-meaning Trust. When the NSW Heritage Act 1978 was introduced, Elizabeth Farm was formally transferred to state government ownership on 23 June 1978. The Act allowed a Permanent Conservation Order to be placed on the property, and this was the first of its kind in NSW. Indeed, Elizabeth Farm is listed as item 001 on the NSW state heritage register.

Once the property was in state government ownership, an extensive conservation program led by the Heritage Council of NSW commenced. This spanned several years before a newly created government entity – the Historic Houses Trust of NSW (now Museums of History NSW) – took over and set out to interpret the house interiors. Elizabeth Farm was formally transferred to the Historic Houses Trust a year after its official opening.

Re-creating the house’s interiors posed significant challenges for the Historic Houses Trust’s curators. Assembling an original collection of the Macarthurs’ furniture was impossible, so copies were made of known pieces at properties owned by Macarthur descendants, including beds, a dining room sideboard, portraits and a writing desk. The use of reproduction furnishings meant that the house could be a ‘barrier-free’ museum, where visitors could wander at will, handling objects or relaxing by the fire in the drawing room. The pared-back rooms worked like stage sets, inviting the visitor to fill them with stories of the families who had lived there. This hands-on approach to history has proven successful with visitors over the past 40 years, creating an immediacy of experience that is rare in historic houses. As well as offering guided tours, the property hosts learning programs for school groups and has held a series of festivals and programs that celebrate its importance to the local community and the people of NSW.

All these years on, we can reflect on the words of NSW Premier Neville Wran when he officially opened the museum on 16 June 1984 and said Elizabeth Farm will be:

A building which provokes the imagination and conjures up all the images of early colonial life ...

‘... Elizabeth Farm also marks a new innovative development in the presentation of house museums. There are no ropes and no barriers. Visitors can actually feel what it was like to live in this house during the Macarthur period, even sit in front of the drawing room fire or at the writing table where Elizabeth Macarthur wrote letters to her husband and her children in England.’1

Today, we can look back on the past 40 years of Elizabeth Farm as a house museum that has served the public well.

Notes:

  1. Excerpt from speech by the Premier, The Hon Neville Wran QC MP.

Elizabeth Farm architecture and design

Browse all
Watercolour of trellised verandah and house from garden.

A taste for the ornate

Traces of long-lost decorative features at Elizabeth Farm provide insights into changing fashions in 19th‑century architecture and design

What might have been: Edward Macarthur’s plans for Elizabeth Farm 

Elizabeth Farm would have been unrecognisable to its original inhabitants had its second owner, Edward Macarthur, realised an ambitious scheme to thoroughly remodel the house

Matching wool colours using a late 19th-century pattern and unfinished Berlin wool work sample from the Caroline Simpson Library and Research Collection

A stitch in time

Tatting, knotting, knitting, pin-tucking, crocheting, pinking, stitching, stuffing, embroidering … needles fly at Elizabeth Bay House

John and Elizabeth Macarthur

Browse all
LON10_EFGB_001_0.jpg
Convict Sydney

John Macarthur - Ambitious, volatile, self-confident

John Macarthur is well remembered as an ambitious and ruthless soldier who forged a powerful colonial farming dynasty

Portrait of John Macarthur
On This Day

12 Feb 1793 - John Macarthur granted land at Parramatta

On 12 February 1793 John Macarthur was granted 100 acres of land at Parramatta by Acting Governor Francis Grose. Macarthur was the first man to clear and cultivate 50 acres

Elizabeth Farm house - front verandah

Elizabeth Farm: the old and the new

This short film, titled ‘Elizabeth Farm: the old and the new’, is a valuable record of the ‘no-barriers’ museum as it was first experienced and enjoyed by visitors

Joseph Lycett, 'The residence of John McArthur Esq. near Parramatta, New South Wales'. Aquatint. Published London, John Souter, 1825. Elizabeth Farm collection, Museums of History New South Wales.
Museum stories

A turbulent past

With its deep, shady verandahs and elegant symmetry, Elizabeth Farm is an iconic early colonial bungalow

Gardens at Elizabeth Farm

Browse all
Pink racemes of crepe myrtle against the Elizabeth Farm homestead

In the pink at Elizabeth Farm

Amid the late summer bounty in the garden at Elizabeth Farm, the crepe myrtle is the undoubted star of the show

Plant your history

Sumptuous cape bulbs light up late summer gardens

Belladonna Lilies and Crinum Lilies are tough bulbs that never say die and can survive years of neglect

View of lowslung colonial era house across gravel and lawn, house framed by trees.
Museum stories

Abundance & curiosity at Elizabeth Farm

One of the great pleasures of visiting Elizabeth Farm is strolling from the drawing room onto the winding paths of the pleasure garden, just as the original occupants, the Macarthur family, did two centuries ago

Plastic pots of Olives taken as cuttings from the first Australian olive at Elizabeth Farm
Plant your history

Extending the olive branch

Just over a year ago we started a project to ensure the survival of the Elizabeth Farm European olive tree (Olea europaea), which is believed to be Australia’s oldest living cultivated olive tree

Events

Tony Albert, Healing land, remembering Country, 2020. Installation view for Elizabeth Farm (2020).
Permanent display

Healing land, remembering Country

A powerful work by Kuku Yalanji artist Tony Albert

Permanent display
Elizabeth Farm school holidays shoot
8 & 15 July, 10.30am
Workshop

All in a day’s work at Elizabeth Farm

Join us for a hands-on workshop where kids will discover what life was like at Elizabeth Farm 200 years ago

09 July, 9:30AM - 15 July, 11:00AM
Two kids juicing lemons at a big wooden table in the kitchen at Elizabeth Farm.
10 & 17 July, 9am
Workshop

All in a day’s work at Elizabeth Farm, accessible program

Join us for a tactile and sensory workshop where kids will discover what life was like at Elizabeth Farm 200 years ago

11 July, 9:00AM - 17 July, 10:30AM