Dockyards: the Archaeological Significance of the MCA Site

The following is an extract from the essay Let sleeping docks lie: Interpreting what’s beneath the new MCA by Margaret Betteridge, as published in Site, a new MCA publication. Site investigates the significant history of the MCA’s site on the west side of Circular Quay, where the First Fleet landed in 1788. It also looks at the MCA buildings themselves – the history of the Art Deco sandstone building, the archaeological remains below the new extension, and the artworks that have been commissioned for the buildings since the mid-twentieth century.

It has been the special genius of our century to investigate things in relation to their context, to come to see context as formative on the thing, and finally to see the context as a thing itself.1

The Museum of Contemporary Art occupies a site of undisputed significance, relevant to both Aboriginal dispossession and European settlement, and extensively modified from 1788. It is known to contain material evidence relating to the former Commissariat Stores and Government dockyard, but less is known about the potential of the site to reveal evidence of its Aboriginal significance.

This site is on traditional land imbued with the spirituality and symbolism of Indigenous cultural heritage and important to the descendants of the Eora people whose lives were irrevocably compromised by the arrival of white men in boats. It is also a counterpoint to the alternating echoes of hope and despair from another cohort of displaced persons, the convicts, whose mark on the landscape would leave a more tangible stain.

Archaeological Photo

Increasingly hamstrung by the constraints of the heritage-listed Art Deco monolith formerly home to the offices of the Maritime Services Board, Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) was understandably frustrated by the failure of previous attempts to get a mandate for its expansion off the ground. The idea of any visual intrusion on the setting of the existing museum building, on arguably one of Sydney’s most desirable waterfront addresses, was always guaranteed to provoke debate, controversy and caution.

More importantly though, was its undisputed pedigree as the site of first contact and the cradle of European settlement. This meant that its chances of having archaeological potential not just of local, but indeed, national significance were high indeed.

The solution for the burgeoning shortfall of space in which to develop and expand its exhibition, education and public programs, was to redevelop the land on the MCA’s adjoining carpark and create an extension to the existing building. The ground below was known to conceal, at the very least, the dormant remains of the colony’s first government dockyard. It was something that could not be disregarded and was a contributing factor to the site’s inclusion in the Section 170 Register of the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority (SHFA) which manages the MCA’s leasehold on behalf of the New South Wales Government.2

The perceived impact of this remnant archaeological evidence on the MCA’s ambitions for redevelopment had been one of the components responsible for derailing two earlier architectural concepts.

Archaeology, used as a tool for investigating and documenting the physical evidence of past human intervention, delivers information that contributes to our understanding of the outcomes and impacts of occupation and adaptation. Its ability to inform our understanding of pre-contact and colonial history has escalated exponentially since the introduction of the NSW Heritage Act in 1977, and it has enhanced the community’s interest in heritage and the perception of its value. The statutory protection afforded by this legislation came a little late to rescue a great deal of the physical evidence of the Aboriginal and colonial landscape of The Rocks. Much of this had been swept away during successive phases of residential, commercial and maritime redevelopment in what is now a popular tourist precinct.

The Heritage Act requires that disturbance to sites of known or potential archaeological significance where redevelopment is contemplated, is conducted according to the specific requirements of each site, normally issued as a set of conditions of consent with development approvals. In this case however, the MCA’s development was assessed by the NSW Planning Department under Part 3A of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979, requiring a review by key stakeholders including the then Heritage Branch, Department of Planning and SHFA, both of whom had vested interests in ensuring the credibility of the outcome for heritage.

Archaeological testing carried out in 2008 added to information gathered from previous excavations of the MCA carpark and immediate environs between 1997 and 2000. These had concluded that the site had been modified in depth and extent since 1788, with the most recent changes associated with the conversion of the former MSB building into the MCA from 1991. It confirmed that the site retained structures and features relating to the site of the first official dockyard in Australia, established by Governor John Hunter RN in 1797 for naval ship repair and construction. That dockyard was subsequently modified during Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s tenure to incorporate four stone-built, U-shaped structures extending from the harbour into the shore, to facilitate the unloading, repair and mooring of boats for tidal careening. Importantly, the testing established the locations of three of these four docks, two of which lay directly below the carpark. The information thereby revealed also added to our knowledge about the immediate environs of the docks, other structures in the vicinity and changes to the shoreline over time.

For an isolated colony totally reliant on the sea for communication, facilities for the construction and repair of vessels were critical. The early establishment of a government dockyard and associated workshops, outbuildings and moorings reflected this imperative. Enlarged and improved between 1818 and 1828, the docks contributed to the increasing concentration of maritime activity and expanding domestic economy on the western shores of Sydney Cove. However, by the 1840s the functions of the dockyard were in decline, its final demise and infill consequent on road and foreshore works associated with the extension of ‘Semicircular Quay’ up to Cadman’s Cottage, completed by 1859; and the relocation of its functions to alternate locations with better potential for future expansion.

The imperative for archaeological testing on this site was a consequence of an early decision to inform the architectural design process and reduce interference to the fabric of the docks from the impact of intrusive structural elements. By mitigating the potential risks, the threat of irreversible damage could be avoided, or at least significantly minimised. Following the partial excavation for recording purposes in 2008, the dockyard remains were covered in situ, ensuring their protection for future re-excavation and study. Sensitive placement of footing pads and groupings of piles minimised their intervention into the working surfaces around the former docks. Sandstone from an 1840s wall adjacent to the George Street Police Station affected by the works was removed for subsequent incorporation into a service corridor which followed the same alignment.

The archaeological testing informed the design of the new building and enabled the architects to locate the piers and footings away from the structural fabric of the docks. The outcome was not simply an expediency to satisfy development pressures because it provided an academic process which co-joined documentary research with material evidence to consolidate the pictures of place and shadows of the past. As an archaeological resource, the excavation has the potential to add to our understanding of the construction and technology of late eighteenth-century / early nineteenth-century dockyards, the processes associated with servicing and constructing ships in the colony, colonial work practices and the changing landscape and western shoreline of Sydney Cove.

The dockyard remains, previously protected under the ‘relics’ provisions of the Heritage Act, were afforded enhanced statutory protection in 2011 when the NSW Government acknowledged the exceptional archaeological significance of Sydney Cove West Archaeological Precinct by its inclusion on the State Heritage Register. This listing incorporates the subsurface layer of a prescribed curtilage in the south-eastern corner of The Rocks, and includes the site of the MCA. The Precinct is identified as having ‘outstanding and unique historical significance for the identified, predictive and potential archaeology of the first Government naval dockyards, convict landing place, the Commissariat Stores buildings, seawall of Circular Quay, the first public wharf, the colony’s first market place and other places of residential, commercial and maritime importance’ and concludes that the site ‘may also contain remains associated with the pre-1788 Aboriginal occupation of the area’.3

What this establishes is the significance of context – the recognition that the dockyard did not stand alone as a single element in a landscape, but connected to a richer environment with Aboriginal and European values. The dockyard operated in an environment that supported, and was supported by, the concentration of commercial and maritime activity in The Rocks. By virtue of its associations, it became intrinsically linked to the changing fortunes of the area and the outcomes of town planning, urban renewal and civic improvement which have shaped its more recent past.

Telling the story of the dockyard and explaining its significance and context cannot be delivered by ruins alone. It needs the support of techniques which are informative, engaging and exciting to a diverse audience, and are responsive to their environment.

Consent conditions for developments associated with archaeological excavations generally require that information which contributes to the heritage values of sites is transmitted into the public domain. This is the role of ‘heritage interpretation’, a modern discipline which has evolved from the early work of US academic Professor Freeman Tilden. Tilden, whose mantra was that ‘through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection’, inspired guardians of natural and cultural heritage the world over to adopt methods to impart meaning to sites and places.4

Interpretation – or communication using engaging, organised, relevant and themed methods that inform and inspire audiences – is enshrined in heritage conservation policy and its practitioners are encouraged to develop stories according to a set of prescribed themes of national, state and local relevance to social, economic, cultural, technical and aesthetic values.

In considering the opportunities to interpret the dockyard, an early decision was taken to avoid in situ exposure of the physical evidence of the docks. It saved the MCA from the need to contemplate the challenge of displaying incomplete extant fabric or showcasing it through viewing windows. This form of archaeological interpretation, when intactness is under-represented, can sometimes be ‘unsatisfying, cryptic, underwhelming and unappreciated’ to the observer.5

It often requires copious supporting contextual material to make comprehensible that which is visible and equally, that which is not visible.

That is not to say there is no place for such displays on sites where it works and is appropriate, as the recent Cumberland Street development can attest, but pragmatism must prevail on a case by case basis. Experience has shown that financial and architectural implications can obscure the cost-effectiveness of in situ displays. On-going intervention arising from conservation issues is a budgetary burden and legibility of remains often demands a heavy reliance on supporting interpretation. By covering and protecting the dockyard archaeology at the MCA, the physical evidence will remain, awaiting future opportunities for investigation and analysis which will come with improved technical expertise and methods.

The inscription of markings denoting the footprints of former structures has successfully shadowed lost architectural elements on other sites. However, if their outlines are incomplete and associated evidence is obscured, their interpretive potential can unwittingly translate into bewilderment. With context diminished on the MCA site by the ravages of former redevelopments and the obscuring of complementary features by subsequent civic improvements, the legibility of part of the dockyard site was challenging. Ultimately, it was accepted that where outlines would need to be located to represent the sub-surface locations of two docks corresponded with high foot traffic in the entrance foyer of the proposed new addition and vehicular access in the loading dock. In both places, conflicting operational pressures, accessibility and lack of opportunities to fully realise the desired interpretive potential reduced their recognition and inscription to tokenism.

Instead, an architectural solution was chosen, to echo the memory of the two docks. This was achieved by creating a visual connection between land and water by way of an alignment in the architectural geometry of the new extension. This connection rekindles not just a memory of the human-modified landscape and the sense of theatre that we see in The Rocks today, but the deeper symbolism of the importance of the land and sea for those of Eora lineage who came long before. Meaning comes to us in many different ways and the MCA, with its visionary commitment to ‘engaging with contemporary art and ideas’ is well placed to create on-going dialogue through multi-layered interpretation of its site, using artistic and creative inspiration, and the imaginative use of different media.

By avoiding a passive landscape littered with exposed ruins, signs on sticks and lines on floors, the MCA is leaving the sleeping docks to gently lie, entombed in sand and fill. While historians will grapple with the secrets thus far revealed, their on-going study and analysis can never ignore the context of chronology. The MCA will inspire us to consider the possibilities of place and challenge our own perceptions of time in space. The prelude of deconstructed magic cubes adorning the new façade is an invitation to reflect on the permutations, combinations and infinite opportunities for interpreting the past and present. While art may be wary of the contest and conflict inherent in context, history would not survive without it.

Footnotes

1 Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of Gallery Space, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2000, introduction by Thomas McEvilley, p7

2 Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, Section 170 Heritage and Conservation Register entry for Sydney Cove West Archaeological Precinct

3 NSW State Heritage Register Database

4 See Freeman Tilden, Interpreting our Heritage, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1957

5 Denis Gojak, ‘Convict archaeology in NSW. An overview of the investigation, analysis and conservation of convict heritage sites’, 2000, paper presented to the Australian Association of Historical Archaeology and published in the Journal of Australian Historical Archaeology, no19, 2001, pp73-83

Images

At top of page: Detail of mooring ring discovered in the middle dock during excavation in 1997

All images courtesy and © Casey & Lowe Pty Ltd
Reference: Casey & Lowe Pty Ltd / Archaeology & Heritage, Archaeological Management Plan: Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, October 2009

© Museum of Contemporary Art Limited and the authors