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Behind Closed Doors – Woodford Academy Blue Mountains, NSW

Shut to visitors and volunteers for four months, a new resident has been stirring up dust behind closed doors at the oldest building in the Blue Mountains.

Woodford Academy Property Coordinator Annie Stevens. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media.

New property co-ordinator Annie Stevens has spent lockdown ensuring critical maintenance of colonial-era Woodford Academy and its historic National Trust-owned collection continued and developing an innovative curatorial plan in collaboration with the volunteer management committee.

The central Mountains property was forced to close just days before its popular annual Harvest Festival in March because of the global coronavirus pandemic.

Fortuitously, the National Trust had appointed Ms Stevens to the role of the museum’s first dedicated property co-ordinator just one month prior.

The property had been managed by volunteers since the National Trust opened it to the public in the 1990s.

Woodford Academy Management Committee chairperson Elizabeth Burgess said Ms Stevens’ appointment by the National Trust was a significant step towards ensuring the sustainability of the multi award-winning museum.

“We were thrilled to welcome Annie to our dedicated team. At the time we had no idea what a tumultuous year 2020 was going to be and, in hindsight, Annie’s appointment could not have been more timely.’’

A Blue Mountains resident for the past five years, Ms Stevens has 17 years’ experience working in museums and heritage sites, including the lead curatorial role on the development of several exhibitions at the Museum of Sydney.

With a Bachelor of Arts (History) and a Master of Arts (Museum Studies), Ms Stevens has experience in conservation, maintenance and management of historic collections. This year she is also undertaking a Masters of Heritage Conservation at the School of Architecture, Design & Planning at Sydney University.

While Woodford Academy has been closed, Ms Stevens has ensured that critical maintenance of the museum and its historic collection continued and has developed an innovative curatorial plan in collaboration with the management committee.

“I am passionate about providing positive visitor experiences, crafting compelling stories and embracing new technologies to engage visitors with history in unique and meaningful ways,’’ Ms Stevens said.

“Legibly curating and interpreting the complex multi-layered history of this important heritage site and its unique collection is an exciting challenge.’’

The four-stage curatorial plan will be incrementally implemented over the next year and include engaging local creatives and artists to produce new interpretive displays.

Several projects identified in Stage 1 have already begun with help from a National Trust Women’s Committee donation, including custom-designed display units by Woodford-based furniture designer/maker Georgina Donovan and a replica of the Woodford Academy football cap by former artist-in-residence Christine’s Millinery.

“The curatorial plan became our lockdown project while the museum was closed, but it was only possible because of Annie’s expertise,’’ Ms Burgess said.

“We see Annie’s museum curation as a much-needed positive step, not only for this heritage property and the morale of our dedicated volunteers, but also for the wider Blue Mountains community as we recover from the devastating 2019-20 bushfires and the pandemic.

“We can’t wait to share the improvements Annie has already implemented during the shutdown including revitalising existing displays, and new interpretative signage and new displays with the community when we re-open the museum.’’

The National Trust (NSW) re-opened a selection of its properties on July 3 including Norman Lindsay Gallery at Faulconbridge and Everglades Historic House and Gardens at Leura with revised terms and conditions of entry such as pre-booking timed entry tickets. Details.

Woodford Academy is expected to re-open in the next few months, pandemic permitting.

In the meantime, Ms Burgess invited people working from home and looking for extra workspace to consider a tenancy lease at Woodford Academy. Details: Belle Property, Leura

Today owned by the National Trust, Thomas Pembroke was given the original land grant to establish a roadside inn at the Woodford Academy site in 1831.

Since then, the Woodford Academy property has operated as one of the first guesthouses in the Mountains and a Victorian-era country retreat for wealthy Sydney merchant Alfred Fairfax, who expanded the property to a 90-acre estate.

Distinguished scholar John McManamey leased the property in 1907 and operated an exclusive school – Woodford Academy for Boys – until 1925, then a co-educational day school from 1929 to 1936.

After his death in 1946, McManamey’s daughters Jessie and Gertrude lived on in the building.

Jessie died in 1972, and Gertrude, who bequeathed the property to the National Trust in 1979 and lived there until 1986, died in 1988.

Today, the property offers a unique glimpse into colonial life in the Blue Mountains as well as an insight into the modern Blue Mountains community through interpretive displays, artist residencies and site-specific arts events organised by the volunteer management committee which cares for the site.

All proceeds from Woodford Academy events directly contribute to the conservation of the property.

About the National Trust (NSW)

The National Trust is Australia’s oldest and largest independent conservation organisation founded in 1945 in New South Wales by Annie Forsyth Wyatt. Collectively the National Trust in Australia owns or manages over 300 built and natural heritage places (the majority held in perpetuity), is supported by 7,000 volunteers and employs more than 300 people nationwide.

The National Trust (NSW) is committed to engaging the community to celebrate and conserve heritage places and collections through events and education. With the support of our members, volunteers and dedicated staff and partners, we advocate on the protection of historical and naturally significant places and collections to ensure their preservation for future generations.

www.nationaltrust.org.au/nsw/

Woodford Academy property co-ordinator Annie Stevens. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media.

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