“The exhibition grew out of the museum’s own collections,” enthuses Sydney Living Museums’ Dr Matthew Stephens.

Catherine HayesThe First Appearance of Miss Catherine Hayes at Victoria Theatre, Sydney 1854 © National Library of Australia

“We manage a series of historic houses and some of those houses have really extraordinary sheet music collections. You can cut a house in many different ways and they’re full of objects, so it sometimes just comes down to the questions that are asked about what’s in them. For almost 10 years we’ve been getting the public, as well as researchers, enquiring about what kind of music and instruments were to be found in the houses, and what are the stories that goes with those? It really forces us to engage with the collections in that way.”

That public interest provided the impetus for SLM’s latest exhibition, Songs of Home, which presents the little-known story of New South Wales’ early musical culture during early settlement. Beginning with the Anglo-Australian relationship, it also explores how the musical cultures of the colonisers and the Indigenous interacted and came to shape one another, whilst also reflecting on the place of music in our lives today.

One historic house in particular provided the spark for the exhibition. Rouse Hill House and Farm, a homestead and estate located in Blacktown, contained thousands of pieces of sheet music. When the museum asked musicologist Dr Graeme Skinner to evaluate the collection, they discovered an extraordinary volume, now called the Dowling Songbook, which has become recognised as the earliest example of music bound in Australia.

“It was put together in 1840, and it represents a collection of music belonging to a young woman and her husband,” says Stephens. “It’s music all bought in Sydney, which is amazing, and it contains manuscripts and copies of songs that the owner was interested in which is a really common theme in our exhibition.”

“You see so much copying going on, that’s what people both in Britain and Australia had to do. It also contains a singing treatise which is bound into the back, and strangely enough it’s a British publication from the 1820s and it’s the only known copy that survived. What it tells us is how people at the time are learning to sing.”

The owners were later identified as Lilias and Willoughby Dowling, a wealthy, well-connected couple from Sydney. Stephens recounts how the museum then approached Professor Neal Peres Da Costa to see if it would be possible to bring to life the couple’s musical world in one of their museums, specifically the drawing room at Elizabeth Bay House.

“There are seven songs in the book that are very heavily ornamented in pencil, so Neal and I got together students from the Sydney Con’s historical performance unit and immersed them in the house where they practised and learnt it and eventually gave concerts to the public,” says Stephens. “It was a wonderful experience not just to discover the music, but to think about how that music was being made in these 18th and 19th century historic houses and what it all meant to broader New South Wales. Songs of Home really grew out of that question.”

The exhibition contains 90 historical objects, each of them fascinating and worthy of its own showcase. Stephens mentions albums of music hand-copied by Jane Austen, on display for the first time in Australia; a guitar once owned by Napoleon, subsequently given to a teenage girl who became a Sydney socialite; and a piano hauled over the Blue Mountains by a Scottish family in 1843. “It’s been really important for me to have real things in the exhibition. I want people to see the timber, the ivory.”

Gerard Krefft’s Corroboree on the Murray River, 1858 © State Library of NSW

“We’re also interested in what this place sounded like from 1788 onwards,” Stephens continues. “This amazing Indigenous sound that had existed for thousands of years and gradually you’re beginning to hear these other immigrant sounds. What is that like? We’re interested in that cultural exchange that was happening really early on between First Nations and European music makers. We know that the Europeans attended corroborees but we know equally well that Aboriginal people were very, very good at mimicking European song – the Europeans talk about that.”

But telling the story of these encounters has proven challenging, Stephens say. Very little documentary evidence exists, and what is available is primarily from European sources. Recognising the need for a more balanced overview, the museum has commissioned five composers through the Ngarra-Burria: First Peoples Composers initiative to write pieces of music responding to the themes of the exhibition.

“We’re not trying to recreate the past, we can’t do that, but we were very keen to see what a contemporary response to the exhibition might look like,” Stephens explains. “It’s about highlighting the continuation of Aboriginal music making, which is really important in an exhibition all about New South Wales as an early colony.”

The exhibition also features a recording of a song performed by Bennelong and his Wangal kinsman Yemmerrawanne in London in 1793. Dressed in Regency clothing, they sang a traditional chant to a small audience in a private home in Mayfair. Fortuitously, the Welsh composer Edward Jones, Harp-Master to the Prince of Wales, was in the audience, and his transcription of the song was published in 1811. Stephens is proud that Songs of Home will include a version of the piece recorded by Matthew Doyle and Clarence Slockee in 2010, an important example of Indigenous music making and what he jokingly refers to as “the first Australian cultural export”.

“I think visitors will really connect to the exhibition if they’re ever learnt music or made music with their family,” he says. “Getting to learn about and really come into contact with all of these incredible musical habits, some of them familiar, others not, will be really exciting I think. We actually finish with a contemporary section and I think it will be great for visitors to consider what is home now in terms of music. We carry it with us on the train – is that home? I don’t know! We still have our idols and share that passion with others as a way to communicate, so I hope this exhibition leads people to think about how music has shaped their own relationships and networks and homes.”

Songs of Home is at the Museum of Sydney until November 17