The foundations of Sydney were built on convict labor, and the Hyde Park Barracks are where criminals who were sentenced to live out the rest of their days in Australia were housed. Opened to hold male convicts working on the government projects and later to house orphan girls escaping the Irish famine, it was after that also used as a female immigration depot, an asylum for impoverished women and a courthouse. All through history, it was the place where people in Australia certainly did not want to end up. Now, as a museum, the barracks tell the stories of those unlucky enough to pass through its doors.
The building itself was also built with convict labor, after it was decided that housing the criminals in one place would improve productivity as well as their moral character. The structure looks nothing short of imposing with its massive shingled roof standing above a simple, durable façade of sandstock brick. It impressed Governor Macquarie so much that the convict who had been assigned to design it, architect Francis Greenway, got a full pardon out of it. But while he earned his freedom, many others weren't so lucky. A guardsman once described the barracks housing up to 1,400 men as “a perfect accumulation of vice and infamy."
When restoration on the building began in 1975, archaeologists were able to pull thousands of personal items out of cracks and from beneath floorboards. This collection, together with displays and stories, now make up the museum and teach about the living conditions of the men and women who once lived here.