Keys to the City of Sydney designed by Ernst Pfenninger, Sydney 2000. Sydney Town Hall Collection 05-013 Photo Greg Piper

Sydney Town Hall is the backdrop for a fascinating collection of items which reflect the civic traditions and interpret the cultural heritage which have shaped the city. It is a collection full of surprises – its uniqueness derives from the intimate connections the items have with the people, places and events of Sydney.

Ceremonial silver trowel used to lay the foundation stone for the western front of the Town Hall, 28 October 1879, made by William Kerr, Sydney. Sydney Town Hall Collection 88- 530 Photo Greg Piper

Civic Record

The architectural fabric of the Town Hall has long been a canvas for the commemoration of Sydney’s history. The building enshrines the contribution of Sydney’s citizens to wars and records the civic duties of serving aldermen through an important portrait collection. Plaques, memorials and tablets around the walls of the Town Hall record Council’s milestones and the great events which have shaped the cultural heritage of the city, ensuring that not just the occasions, but the personal contributions are preserved in perpetuity. Sydney’s special relationship with HMAS Sydney is also celebrated in Sydney Town Hall.

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Their Royal Highnesses, Princess Elizabeth, Duchess of Edinburgh and the Duke of Edinburgh by Margaret Williams, 1948 oil on canvas. Sydney Town Hall Collection 88-362 Photo Greg Piper


The first item to be acquired in 1873 for Sydney Town Hall was an impressive statement which embodied the political ambitions of the city’s municipal council. It was a large royal portrait of H M Queen Victoria, the reigning English monarch of the time, and a symbol of the ultimate authority head of authority and state. Over the years, as plans waxed and waned over the notion of establishing a dedicated civic gallery, works of art were added to the walls of the Town Hall. They are important today because they document the changing landscape of Sydney and changing fashion and taste of art in a public space.

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Sydney Town Hall’s collection of portraits of civic leaders is significant not just as an important catalogue of the men and women who have dedicated their service to the City, but as an insight into the changing fashion of portraiture. From mid 19th century sombre formality to 20th century ceremonial dignity, each portrait captures the personality of the sitter and the artistic skill of the artist. While early mayoral portraits were accepted as legacies, gifts from family and grateful citizens, today’s subjects are personal and reflective studies commissioned for perpetuity.

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Gifts to the City

In 1880, the spectacular Vase de Rimini was presented to the people of Sydney in gratitude for the successful staging of the Sydney International Exhibition in 1879. It was the first official gift received by Council and has been displayed in Sydney Town Hall, along with many other international gifts presented in the course of official duties and hospitality since then.

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Plaque commemorating the laying of the final top stone of Centennial (Main) Hall , 10 April 1889 Photo Greg Piper

Foundation Stones

Major milestones in the history of Sydney Town Hall are recorded on its walls, ensuring that due recognition for each important stage remains a permanent fixture. Each was a cause for celebration, conducted with due ceremony using special trowels and mallets and witnessed by civic dignitaries. Secreted behind a number of these plaques are time capsules recording a snapshot of the life and times in Sydney at that particular moment. This tradition has continued with the latest one buried in 2010 marking the completion of major works.

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Lamp and switch recovered from a Type A Japanese midget submarine in Sydney Harbour, 1942 Sydney Town Hall Collection 88-109 Photo Greg Piper

Old and New

The Sydney Town Hall Collection is a fascinating window into the history of Sydney and the people, places and events which have shaped Sydney. For over 130 years, Council has acquired by gift, purchase and bequest, a diverse collection of decorative and historical items and each item has a story to tell. Acquisitions of artworks, furnishings and official gifts are used to enhance the interiors of Sydney Town Hall and wherever possible displayed for public enjoyment. Our on-going curatorial program includes the addition of items with historical significance to the Town Hall and to the civic history of the city and commissioning local artists to create specific artworks will ensure that the collection continues to develop in ways which record the evolution of the City’s history and achievements.

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Life buoy, presented to the City of Sydney on the decommissioning of the third HMAS Sydney, c1848 Sydney Town Hall Collection 88-001 Photo Greg Piper

HMAS Sydney

The City of Sydney’s special relationship with the HMAS Sydney began in 1914 when the ship’s encounter with the German raider, SMS Emden crew was commemorated in the Town Hall with the unveiling of a plaque. In 1941, the crew of the second HMAS Sydney were honoured with a civic reception and the presentation of a medal for their victory in the Mediterranean Sea in World War II. More recently, the contribution of HMAS Sydney to the Vietnam conflict was recognised with the dedication of a plaque.

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