Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Museum honouring Sir Henry Parkes

A museum honouring Sir Henry Parkes in regional NSW is experiencing financial difficulty.(Supplied: National Trust NSW).

Elloise Farrow-Smith & Max Tillman, Tenterfield School of Arts building that houses museum honouring Sir Henry Parkes closes, ABC North Coast, 7 August 2023

A museum that marks the birthplace of Australian federation has been closed.

Sir Henry Parkes made his impassioned plea to Australians to federate the colonies into one nation at Tenterfield, in northern NSW, on October 24, 1899.

But almost a century and a half later, parts of the heritage-listed Tenterfield School of Arts building have been closed because the local council says it cannot afford to keep it open.

The Sir Henry Parkes School of Arts building was extensively renovated after federal funding in 1999.(Supplied: National Trust NSW).

‘Disappointed’ by decision

National Trust NSW chief executive Debbie Mills said the Sir Henry Parkes Museum’s closure had come as a shock.

“We’re now quite aware of the financial challenges the council is facing across their region, and so we empathise, but we’re very disappointed that the result of that means that the museum and the theatre and cinema are closing,” Ms Mills said.

The museum houses a collection of items from across Sir Henry’s political life including an iron gavel from his time as NSW premier, a collection of self-penned poetry, and two ivory walking sticks he was famous for using.

Radio National: Sir Henry Parkes’s Tenterfield Oration, 1889. Click here to view the video.

Ms Mills believes the importance of Sir Henry’s memory is essential to the identity of Australia.

“It’s absolutely significant in our history because that led to bringing our states and territories together, you could talk about it as being the birthplace of that,” she said.

“The building itself is wonderful, but it’s that cultural significance and importance to the history of Australia that is critical and that all started in Tenterfield.”

The Sir Henry Parkes School of Arts sits in the centre of Tenterfield.(Supplied: National Trust NSW).

In 1957, it was the first building in NSW to be gifted to the National Trust by an act of parliament.

In 1999, the federal government thought it important enough to chip in $3 million to renovate the School of Arts and museum.

Ms Mills now has concerns about its future.

“Whenever you don’t open and shut and provide air and access and care to something it is at a greater risk of harm or deterioration,” she said.

Community ‘deadset against a rate rise’

The Tenterfield Council is halfway through a 50-year lease and while it only pays a peppercorn rent, it still has responsibility for looking after the heritage-listed building.

Tenterfield Mayor Bronwyn Petrie said she was heartbroken but pragmatic about the situation.

Bronwyn Petrie says the council has to take “these impossible decisions” to keep providing essential services to the community.(ABC News North Coast).

“This is a building of national significance, but it shouldn’t fall on the ratepayers of Tenterfield to keep it open to the public,” she said.

“The community was dead set against [closing the School of Arts] but they’re also dead set against a rate rise.”

Cr Petrie said there was a danger the council could end up under administration if its financial problems were not addressed, and closing the museum would save ratepayers about $350,000 a year.

The council will consider selling off some of its assets, including the local visitors centre and buildings that house the local community radio station and local childcare centre.

“We can’t keep delivering the same services with a smaller and smaller bucket of money, trying to still hang on to other very important services such as the swimming pool,” Cr Petrie said.

“We have to take these almost impossible decisions to ensure the council’s future sustainability.”

The National Trust is worried about the condition of artefacts in the closed museum.(Supplied: National Trust NSW),

The National Trust remains hopeful about ensuring the birthplace of federation is open to the public.

Its board will meet later this month to discuss the issue.

“We’re working to see what is possible, whilst concurrently making approaches to government to see what support they may offer to either the council or the National Trust to be able to care for this important place going forward,” Ms Mills said.

Opening of the Tenterfield railway in 1886, three years before Sir Henry’s address. (Supplied: National Museum Australia).



Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Lynley Crosswell, Museums Victoria, GPO Box 666, Melbourne VIC 3001, © CAMD 2023
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