At a time when some NSW hospitals can’t afford to buy bandages for their patients and the public transport system is struggling to stay afloat there are some areas of the bureaucracy where money is no object.

Nathan Rees, premier of NSW, has been working hard to find the money to bail out the underfunded state hospitals and transport system. As hollow logs containing large caches of money appear to be in short supply the Premier and his team have resorted to wholesale sackings of nursing and other hospital staff.

But there is a field where sacred cows peacefully graze, safe from any Governmental fuss about money, and it is located right there at No. 10 Macquarie Street — the palatial headquarters of the Historic Houses Trust.

The Trust has a large portfolio of house museums which for some years now have been struggling to attract visitors. These are, in the main, not the humble cottages of workers but elegant mansions which by any reckoning are the cream of the crop. At a conservative estimate, the Trust’s collection of museums would be worth at least $250m One of them alone, Rouse Hill House, is worth perhaps $35m.

The total value of Trust properties is recorded in its 2007 annual report as $201m with an additional $32.5m in objects in their collections. No information is provided in the report to indicate the basis of such valuations. Toss in the Trust’s $25m annual budget and it’s clear there are significant savings to be made by a Government that is serious about cutting unnecessary expenditure.

Some of the failed museum houses stand on rolling acres of parkland or in highly-prized and incredibly expensive harbourside locations. They are furnished with the appropriate antiques, floorcoverings and fabrics and lavishly curtained in the manner of their time. Much expensive research and skill has gone into their conservation. A great deal more expense goes into their continual upkeep, security and staffing.

Some of them, such as Vaucluse House which has extensive parklands, provide a setting for successful musical and other events. The Trust mounts a variety of events, including Sydney Open, which boost the bums on seats statistic but camouflages the failure of a significant number of its house museums.

The citizens of NSW are cordially invited to visit the museums but the trouble is that they no longer want to. The house museum is dead.

At Rouse Hill House, for example, visitor numbers are down to around 50 people per week. The house stands on 13 hectares of land in the Rouse Hill Growth Centre – land that is probably worth around $30m.

When the Historic Houses Trust was founded in 1980 it was intended as a repository for important houses which, for one reason or another, had come into Government ownership. Over the years, as funds were made available, the Trust added to its portfolio until today it has a collection of outstanding buildings.

Some of them are performing well, notably the Museum of Sydney and Hyde Park Barracks, but many of the others have been in the doldrums for years. These include Vaucluse House, Elizabeth Bay House, Government House, Rouse Hill House and Rose Seidler House, as well as Meroogal at Nowra. It was once fashionable to visit them but that trend is so over. The Now Generation simply doesn’t want to go there.

As a result, the Trust’s house museums have been virtually mothballed with opening hours restricted to a couple of days per week. But they’re still sitting there, eating up public money in large lumps. A Government serious about cutting back on expenditure could easily decide to let the failed museums out on long leases or sell them with protective caveats on their titles.

Peter Watts, the recently retired foundation Director of the Trust, has said that the house museum wheel will turn again. But this revolution might be a long time coming. Fashion cycles usually take many years. How long the Trust is prepared to wait for the second coming of the house museum is uncertain. Fifty years? A century?

The taxpayers of NSW are entitled to ask whether they are getting value for the money they spend on the Historic Houses Trust’s collection of period museums. With a staff of a couple of hundred people and an annual budget of more than $25m, the Historic Houses Trust in its present form may be one luxury that the hard-pressed taxpayers of NSW can do without.

Two questions spring to mind on the matter of the Trust’s dud museums: why didn’t the Trust “fess up” to the problem? And why didn’t its political masters dig through the bureaucratic fluff to discover the reality behind the spin?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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