The People’s House: Sydney Opera House at 50

Museums of History NSW

In the foreground, a girl throws her arms open, behind her another girl and a man moving their arms in front of a digital interactive screen filled with shapes.

The People's House: Sydney Opera House at 50 at the Museum of Sydney invites visitors to explore the rich history of people, place, performance, design and engineering that have all contributed to making Australia's most famous landmark what it is today.

Art Processors worked closely with the Museum, delivering the creative concept for the exhibition, assisting with curation, producing audio interviews, and devising four original interactives: ‘Maestro’, ‘The Drafting Table’, ‘On This Day’, and ‘Thanks for the Memories’.

Using the latest in interactive and motion-control technology—including smart motion-sensing cameras, live generative audio and visuals, AI, and data visualisation—the interactives create space for play, experimentation and delight. Visitors can try their hand at drawing elements of the Sydney Opera House, submit memories for preservation in the public record, and view thousands of past performances. The highlight is ‘Maestro’, a stunning generative musical experience.

The People's House also showcases a curated collection of historic memorabilia, including costumes, posters, photographs, architectural drawings, and other nostalgia, on loan from institutions including Opera Australia and The Australian Ballet, as well as the personal archives of our own Sam Doust. Sam, a noted Sydney Opera House historian, was both our team lead for this project and creative director for the exhibition at large.


Maestro

Taking over Gallery 1 is 'Maestro', an immersive musical experience that invites visitors to take part in a generative performance of sound and light that they can control using their bodies.

Data from sensors translate gestures and movement into different musical elements – dynamic rhythms, explosive drums, driving rhythm, fractured beats, and animated bass. This very human-centred approach to harnessing technology for creative expression blurs the lines between performer and audience. It's a deceptively deep experience that is strongly experiential and immersive whether visitors are all-in or just spectating.

Maestro leverages generative musical algorithms within the Livetronica genre, with A and B sides to the music. MIDI (digital music notation) is employed to drive virtual instruments, enabling precise manipulation and control over the resulting soundscape. Visitors can move between different sections of the space to add or remove musical elements. Motion-capture cameras pick up subtle gestures to affect tonality and timbre.

"We asked ourselves, how can we create a space where people feel they can genuinely perform and commune with the creative spirit of the Opera House? I think 'Maestro' answers that very nicely—it doesn't even have to ask the question. The moment you walk into the space it feels performative, it feels live, it feels extemporaneous, and it feels communal. Because people contribute to the space, one way or another, whether they're actively participating or simply watching."

– Sam Doust,
   Group Director, Creative Services, Art Processors


Unearthing stories

Throughout the exhibition, visitors can listen to the fascinating stories of 10 ordinary, everyday people, whose lives and careers are inextricably linked to the Sydney Opera House.

We interviewed performers, theatre staff, designers, building workers and even a show biz kid who shared their vivid memories of being on stage (and in one case trying desperately to hide on stage), drilling holes for theatre seats and developing new methods to make them comfortable, creating elaborate sets, crawling through tunnels, meeting royalty, and scaling the sails to watch the sunrise.

Recorded using journalistic techniques and produced with the visitor experience in mind, the 2-3 minute stories are a natural complement to the memorabilia on display, adding a very human layer of insight and entertainment to the exhibition.

A young woman looks at a glass case to the right, her hand touching headphones on her head.
A man and woman stand together in a gallery, the man holding an audio puck to his ear and the woman trying to listen too.

Taking visitors on a journey

Gallery 2 is a journey through the history of the Sydney Opera House and its physical spaces. As visitors enter from the foyer they can move into the auditorium, venture on stage or take a look behind the scenes. 

In the auditorium, ‘First Act’ travels back in time to the Sydney Opera House's earliest days and the first performances to fill its halls, including the Official Royal Opening. ‘On Stage’ celebrates 50 years of performances from the Sydney Opera House's resident companies, with costumes from Opera Australia and The Australian Ballet and show posters enveloping visitors in the drama and excitement of opening night. ‘Backstage’ offers a life-sized set for visitors to explore, celebrating how the Sydney Opera House has become a part of every home in Australia through broadcast performances, news stories and a seemingly endless supply for merch and memorabilia.

A man looks up as a huge wall covered in show posters featuring the Sydney Opera House.
A man standing in a room resembling a living area with couches and a lamp, and looks at a cabinet containing Sydney Opera House memorabilia.

The Drafting Table

The Sydney Opera House may be the beating heart of cultural life in Australia but it's the unmissable architecture and the sweeping geometry of the Sails that have made it a World Heritage-listed masterpiece. 

'The Drafting Table' is a covertly didactic interactive that celebrates the work of Jørn Utzon, Ove Arup, Yuzo Mikami and others, allowing visitors to take a deeper dive into the building's design, architecture and engineering.

By picking up a stylus and sketching conceptual design elements of this World Heritage-listed landmark, the story of its creation unfolds. Our conversational AI unobtrusively comments on the visitor's interactions, encouraging and responding to their efforts.

A young woman looks down, interacting with a digital drafting table interactive.
A girl interacting with a digital drafting table interactive, behind her another girl and a man also interact with the digital interfaces.

Sam Doust was both our team lead for this project and the creative director for the exhibition at large. And there couldn't have been a more fitting person for the role, given Sam has spent over a decade working on documentaries, installations, exhibitions, and even the official guide book for the Sydney Opera House. This includes, more recently, his work as the commissioned artist for From the Sails: Light Years, a 17-minute film that launched the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Sydney Opera House.

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A man stands at an exhibition table, looking down at a books in his hands.

On This Day

At the 'On This Day' interactive exhibit, visitors use a dial to search through the Sydney Opera House's chronological history and discover the diversity of performances and events that have filled the past 50 years.

When visitors choose a date, the interactive reveals what took place that day in and around the Sydney Opera House's spaces—from ballet performances and protests to royal galas and fringe theatre. 

With such a vast timeline to curate, we created the data visualisation for 'On This Day' using the Sydney Opera House's own records and then translated them into single moments for visitors using a custom app. This app uses a 3D model of the iconic building, displayed across a starfield made of thousands of small points of light representing each record.

Two women stand in a gallery, interacting with the displays, a large screen behind them showing scenes from the Sydney Opera House.

"The framing for this exhibition as 'The People's House' has been a fascinating lens through which to view the past 50 – really 65 years – of the Sydney Opera House. Art Processors has delivered curation, exhibition and interactive design, and development, in collaboration with the Museum of History NSW's staff, to co-create an exhibition that will form a wonderfully memorable experience that will evoke wonder, nostalgia and reverie."

– Sam Doust,
   Group Director, Creative Services, Art Processors

 


Thanks for the Memories

'Thanks for the Memories' is a digital wall of memories that invites visitors to reflect on what the Sydney Opera House means to them and leave a personal memory to share with others. 

Over the years, the Sydney Opera House has been the scene of many memorable moments in public and private life. From Nelson Mandela's freedom speech to Jessica Watson's famous return at the Man-O-War Steps, and the memorable days and nights out for countless millions of people over the past 50 years.

Together with Museums of History NSW, we gathered accounts from members of the community for this interactive, which leverages our data visualisation technology. Visitors can explore this rolling visual of text and imagery and then add their own moment, growing the collective memory of the Sydney Opera House.

Acknowledgement of Country

In the spirit of reconciliation, we acknowledge the many Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and honour Elders past, present and emerging. We respect their deep, enduring connection to their lands, waterways and surrounding clan groups since time immemorial. We cherish the richness of First Nations Peoples’ artistic and cultural expressions.