My Volunteer Experience at Old Government House’s Miss Fisher’s Costume Exhibition

I initially applied to volunteer at the Miss Fisher’s Costume Exhibition at Old Government House because I was seeking museum work and I thought volunteer experience would look good on my resume. I was a bit apprehensive before my first volunteer shift, knowing I would be working a long day without getting paid. I was wrong to feel this way because what I received back from my volunteering was better pay than money: friendship and knowledge.

 

Some history~

Old Government House is the oldest public house in Australia; originally built by convicts in 1799, it is located in modern-day Parramatta Park, and was the ‘country’ residence of the first ten Governors of the Australian colony. The house is particularly known for the transformations made to it by Governor and Mrs Macquarie, which are retained in its current appearance. Rooms are furnished with pieces from the National Trust’s collection of early colonial furniture in such a way as to recreate a somewhat authentic set up reminiscent of how the house would have looked when the Macquarie’s lived in it. (However, most of these furnishing were taken out during the Miss Fisher’s Costume exhibition period meaning I was unable to view them for myself.) Governor Fitzroy was the last Governor to occupy the house. After this, the house became a boarding house for St John’s School (in 1900) and later for The King’s School (1910-1967). Management was handed to the National Trust in 1967 whereupon the house underwent some restoration (however, not the first time restoration work was completed) and the House was officially opened as a museum by Queen Elizabeth II in April 1970.

This is the second time the House (FYI this is my short way of referring to ‘Old Government House’) has hosted the Miss Fisher’s Costume exhibition, the first time was themed on Seasons 1-2 and this years exhibition has been themed on Season 3. I, myself, have never seen the TV show though I have heard from quite a few people that it is worth watching and my personal opinion is that the costumes are beautiful!

[My favourite dresses, below]

 

Things I learned~

This semester at uni I have been studying an introductory subject on museum practices. I chose it because firstly, as aforementioned, I wouldn’t mind some museum work, but also because I didn’t know how museums operate and since I love history I wanted to understand museums a bit better. I found that volunteering at Old Government House reinforced so much of what I was learning at uni as I saw the theoretical concepts in practice. For example, the use of white light instead of yellow light because white light is less damaging to organic materials. I also came to understand what the various museum officer roles entailed and how they were different from one another: the director, the curator, the tour guides etc. Furthermore, I got to see different ways in which to engage visitors: audio effects (*cough* super annoying sound loops), tactile samples (not always effective but definitely more so than nothing as people would often attempt to touch the costumes), and complementary artistic displays, such as a backdrop of a ballroom, which gave the effect of the time period and a full energetic atmosphere.

Yet, this wasn’t the only knowledge I gained from volunteering. I also learned life skills: humility, kindness, and patience. I learned not to judge a book by its cover and that everyone has an interesting story to tell. I learned that sometimes friendship comes from  the most unexpected places (meeting a girl, finding out we take a class at uni together, and becoming friends). And, from the conversations I had with my new friends, I learned some interesting tips. One tip that stood out to me was to study MOOCs. These are free Massive Open Online Courses. They are great for extra knowledge (some people, such as myself, are weird and like learning new things) and if you’re willing to pay for a certificate they also look good on your resume as an employer can see that you have put in extra effort to acquire new and relevant skills. Another life tip that stood out to me was the option of staying in hostels while overseas. At first, I worried about safety but after talking to a lady I was volunteering with, I looked forward to the option and after further research it became a more enticing option. There are other tidbits I have gleaned but if I begin to list these, you might be stuck reading this all day.

I have watched the first few seasons of Downtown Abbey (I highly recommend it, by the way) and there are some common elements between that historic house and this one that I loved seeing for my own eyes and learning about, which I want to share. Firstly, two words: servant bells. They’re a really cool and clever invention. Servants often did not wait in the same room as their masters (though, there are exceptions) so if the master wanted something done, he would ring a bell. There was a line of bells in the servant’s quarters and based on the sound of the bell, the servants knew which room to attend to and what was wanted. Genius. Moreover, according to a permanent volunteer at the house, shutters were used by the main doors, in the place of curtains, to protect whoever opened the house for the day from bullets of mobs or raiders.

Historic houses also had particular architectural styles (just like now). However, since Australia lacked the necessary building materials at that time (being a brand new colony and all) the convicts/ architects had to emulate certain styles with the materials they did have. Examples-

  • The House is made from brick but it appears to be made from concrete because of the way it is painted.
  • The door looks like oak but, again, that’s just paint.
  • Greek Columns? Naa… That’s paint, my friend.

Okay, so basically paint is a really handy tool in architecture. Who knew?

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Conclusion~

If you’re considering volunteering because it will look good on your resume, well, you’re probably right. But, it’s about more than that. Volunteering will enrich you as a person. It will fulfil you. You will learn whether or not that ‘thing’ is for you (whatever area you choose to volunteer in), you will learn a lot of interesting stuff, and you will make new friends. And, if you’re unsure? There’s no pain in trying volunteering and seeing where it takes you.

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[P.S: The creepy girl from the portrait in the bedroom, below]

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