By Naomi Parry
Cultural Development Officer, Lithgow City Council
In this, my first post for NZMuseums, let me say how nice it is to be a part of a community of writers engaging with museums – thank you for having me. I’ve been in history and heritage for most of my life and some of that includes stints in museums. But this is the first time I have managed one, which is an interesting position to blog from. Here’s hoping news of my stumbling discoveries will spark conversation about the delights and difficulties of running regional museums in the Pacific.
My museum is Eskbank House, which is in Lithgow, a town of about 18,500 people, nestled in a valley three hours from Sydney, NSW. We are part of the Blue Mountains World Heritage National Park, so are surrounded by the eucalyptus forests and sandstone escarpments most know from Katoomba’s Three Sisters. But Lithgow has been an industrial centre for 170 years so contains vast factory buildings, worker’s cottages and fine public buildings, along with a strong sense of community and local identity.
It also has Eskbank House, which I did not know existed until I applied for the job of looking after it. When I saw it, I was very excited. It is beautiful.
You will have to wait for another post to hear about the collections, but they represent the Lithgow region; Lithgow Pottery, antiques, textiles, blacksmithing and wheelwright’s equipment, coal mining tools, a rail engine and relics of the organisations that were the pulse of the region – trade unions, the Masons and the Lithgow Co-operative.
But this post is about the house. Built in 1842 for an ambitious young Dumfries Shire man, Thomas Brown it is constructed of local sandstone, in the Colonial Georgian style. The valley’s first coal mine, railway siding and blast furnace were all built on Eskbank Estate before Brown, whose had a controversial political career, sold in 1881. The young businessmen who took it over were not interested in the house so it became a rental property and a manager’s residence while they mined and subdivided and made steel. But it survived.
Eskbank House was rescued by a remarkable and prescient act of civic mindedness. During WW2 Eric Bracey, a wealthy local retailer, decided the house, then divided into flats but structurally intact, should be preserved as a relic of prosperity that was already passing. He bought it in 1948 and deeded it to Lithgow Council. For 18 years Bracey and the Lithgow District Historical Society scoured the area for objects and fine antiques to furnish the museum, and it was opened to the public in 1966. The Historical Society ran it until 2004 when, defeated by age and insurance premiums, they returned it to Council to operate.
In the few short years since 2004 Council has embarked on a program of converting what was a folky house museum into a professional institution. The challenge – and this is where I come in – is to maintain house and its collections but ensure it has contemporary value as an exhibition space and public facility. But I am out of space, so, until next time …
Naomi Parry, Cultural Development Officer, Lithgow City Council
Eskbank House, +612 6351 3557 firstname.lastname@example.org