First published on 20 Aug 2008. Updated on 26 May 2009.
As a Victorian native, did you know you'd be hanging around Sydney so long? No, I had no idea we'd stay so long. But my spiritual home is still in country Victoria. I always tell my wife, "If I die, don't bury me in Sydney", because I'm a huge appreciator of the renaissance in Melbourne in cultural depth and food and public art. I think Sydney has fallen behind and needs to catch up.
Ouch! What do you suggest we do? We need a huge investment in funding projects. The Sydney Olympics did that but it's fallen back now. Australia 2020 is a good move forward. The Opera House needs a huge amount of funding to bring it up to scratch.
So should we take it that you fancy the Harbour Bridge over the Opera House as Sydney's best icon? Well, neither really. It's not so much its icons [I appreciate], but Sydney's hidden treasures: its parks, walks, houses. That's the really fascinating part, but they are never promoted. We've got the beach right next to the city in Sydney, which is great, but that's all that is showcased to tourists. It's all tits, buns, beaches and barbies. There's this invisible diversity: fantastic theatre, a great gay culture and a real depth of activity that you just don't see [hyped up].
What does running the Historic Houses Trust actually involve? Oh blimey! That's a complicated question. There are 19 properties that we oversee and most are open as museums. There are a lot of political, cultural, commercial and artistic interests to manage, plus all of the programs associated with them. It can get heated with the competing interests.
Canterbury MP Linda Burney described you as a "quiet, humble achiever", and I get the sense you're a fairly level-headed kind of bloke. Have you ever wanted to yell really loud about an issue? Yes, but I do that behind closed doors. I don't think it ever serves anyone any good to go about things in a way that courts more controversy. It's best to deal with matters in a considered way.
Why do you make so many of your properties museums? Ever think about mixing things up and turning one into a nightclub? The Hyde Park Barracks are ideally located next to the Cross... Most of these projects are so important that they lend themselves to museological approaches, making them museums of themselves. The Barracks are right in the middle of Sydney. So we could make it a nightclub or a shopping centre, but it's so important - it dates to 1819 and was the first convict barrack in the colony - so why would we do that? The Mint is also extremely important but it's had a lot of new developments, including a large bar.
How do you feel about the fact people are boozing at The Mint? I'm delighted about it! There is an earnestness and preciousness that is ridiculously tentative about what we can or might do with historic properties. I think these places are robust buildings and need to be made relevant. It doesn't matter to me that 500 people might turn up at this magical courtyard in the middle of Sydney, in its first coining factory, to drink. That pleases me as much as if someone came in to use the library. If we become so precious about these places, that's when we start to lock them up.
What's the deal with rats at the Barracks? From its earliest days, the Barracks were infested with rats. But what the rats did was take away things like food scraps, textiles, artefacts and whole convict outfits and place them between the floorboards and ceilings for their nests. When the building was dug into [years later], the rats' nets were found with whole dresses - thousands of them. From these nests, we were able to catalogue artefacts at the Barracks. We even have a display with a dead rat. We're thankful to them. Good luck to you, rats!
Do you ever flirt with the idea of just sweeping certain aspects of history under the carpet? Never. I'm deeply embedded in history, selling history. There were difficult issues regarding Aboriginal Australia that arose when we were deciding what to do with the Museum of Sydney. A lot of people wanted it to just be this grand British interior, forget the indigenous side. But we felt that this was inappropriate. It was a turning point. Because we were casting the [former] governor's house in a new mold, there was a lot of venom directed towards us. We had to manage that.
What's next for you? What will you do on your first day off the job? Sit quietly in the sun, read and contemplate a plan for the garden. It's not that exciting. No tripping around Greek islands.
What sort of home do you live in? I live in a Federation house from 1905, which is full of children, cats and dogs and art.
What is one of your least favourite places in Sydney? Oh dear! I'm going upset someone. I really do not like the Sydney Tower. I find it totally inelegant for something that could have been magical. It's so lumpy.
Life & times
- 1949 Born in Horsham, Victoria. Develops a keen interest in history, gardens and architecture from an early age
- 1976 Begins work in private practice and consults for the National Trust in Victoria
- 1980 The Historic Houses Trust is founded to manage Elizabeth Bay House and Vaucluse House
- 1981 Watts is appointed the first director of the Historic Houses Trust
- 1983 Historic Gardens of Victoria by Watts is published, following the release of his first book The Gardens of Edna Walling (1981)
- 1999 Watts becomes the chair of the Australian Garden History Society, which he also founded
- 2002 The Official Establishments Trust welcomes Watts to its ranks.
- 2007 Watts becomes a Member of the Order of Australia