Any interpretation of penal and criminal history is inherently complicated. Pentridge Prison housed numerous high-profile inmates, but we deliberately sought to avoid re-treading these well-worn tales. Instead, we wanted to reveal a soberingly realistic picture of day-to-day life in Pentridge, told first-hand by those who experienced it—from the bleakly mundane to the unsparingly brutal.
However, this naturally raised a series of correlated but emotive issues. Are the crimes committed by inmates relevant to the narratives we want to convey? Can we expect visitors to look beyond these often horrific acts to understand the human experience of incarceration? And, in acknowledging the confronting nature of such material, what duty of care do we owe to visitors?
The former prison is also subject to a Heritage Overlay and is listed on the Victorian Heritage Register, creating unique challenges to coordinate exhibition design and technology fit-out with the existing base build. While inherently providing a subdued atmosphere fitting for such a tour, the layout of the prison, by its very nature, is antithetical to a space designed for exhibition and exploration.
When undertaking a project based around landmarks and locations, we operate on a foundational principle that there is always an inextricable story of the land itself. Pentridge is located on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, but more than merely providing a cursory acknowledgement of Country, we must recognise the intersection of First Nations people and incarceration in Australia is a profoundly deep wound that still bears grief to this day. Seeking to address this issue with raw honesty—but also sensitivity towards those who experienced, and continue to experience, this trauma of systemic failure—added another degree of complexity to an already difficult thematic landscape.
We were initially commissioned to work on Pentridge’s redevelopment based on an existing Master Plan that focused on the prison’s 19th century history, but this was negotiated with the National Trust to expand into the 20th century. This enabled us to link the history of the site itself, including the land prior to the 1851 construction of the prison, to a point in living memory when the prison was closed in 1997. This, in turn, provided further starting points for visitor discovery on a wider range of topics throughout time, and building a comprehensive picture of Pentridge’s evolution as a prison from beginning to end.
We formally interviewed more than a dozen former inmates, prison officers, clerics, lawyers, and other individuals who spent time in the prison, and quickly discovered there is no one truth about Pentridge. These conversations were facilitated by Pentridge Voices, a volunteer research organisation dedicated to preserving the heritage and memories of the prison.
While we are immensely grateful to all our interviewees for sharing their histories, we also realised that certain accounts had the potential to cause renewed trauma for some visitors. While not wanting to diminish the severity of these inmates’ experiences, we also had to draw the line on the inclusion of specific events for this reason. Tragically, and paradoxically, the stories of many prisoners proved to be too complex to accurately depict within the relatively short time available to us.
"The modern-day Pentridge redevelopment has all the trimmings of normal daily life—a cinema, a grocery store, a playground. But it’s also a place where people were executed, committed suicide, were in for heinous crimes of one sort or another—or just for being drunk—over a period of 150 years on Wurundjeri Land. Unless you interpret that long penal history, and acknowledge the much longer Indigenous identity to the land, you are forgetting. You are whitewashing. We felt this project was a chance to ensure that didn't happen, and bring integrity and truth-telling to this place."
– Sam Doust,
Group Director, Creative Services, Art Processors
As the site lies on Wurundjeri Land we consulted the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation regarding the exhibition content and how the tours would be operated. They facilitated a number of invaluable introductions—the prison redevelopment and audio experience feature the artworks and narration of First Nation Elders and representatives including Uncle Bill Nicholson, Chris Austin, Les Griggs and the late Uncle Jack Charles. Their contributions give critical perspective on contextualising the fractured relationship between First Nations people and the penal system.
Despite its confined spaces, the prison’s bluestone construction proved to be advantageous to our technology. The immersive audio experience relies on triangulating the visitor’s location via Bluetooth beacons to identify which cell narration to play, with bluestone providing an excellent barrier to ‘signal bleed’ into other cells.
Allowing the bluestone to be part of the story was an important conceptual motif. However, projecting images directly on this surface was challenging due to its dark and rough-hewn texture. We experimented with different projectors and high-contrast monochrome visuals to provide maximum clarity. The walls also feature a series of collages incorporating images of former inmates, embedding storytelling into the texture of the prison itself. To recreate the starkness of the “separate and silent” regime of 19th century imprisonment, we obtained permission to strip one cell back to its original condition from that era, exposing the bluestone excavated by the prisoners themselves.
It was an extraordinary privilege to work with Uncle Jack Charles, who sadly passed away a few months before the completion of the project. With the permission of his family, we are grateful to have his voice featured in the audio narration of the experience. As Kate Chmiel, Senior Content Developer, recalls: “Uncle Jack was a gentleman, a raconteur, and phenomenally generous. He offered a unique perspective on Pentridge because he saw it as a bit of a reset in life. He was loved and respected in there, and later on he became such an important mentor to young Indigenous people in prison. We have a lot of love, respect, and gratitude for being able to talk to and spend time with Uncle Jack.”
The tours of Pentridge Prison are a vivid experience of contextual dissonance. The surrounding redevelopment is a contemporary built environment featuring an assortment of suburban conveniences—with the same earth and bluestone of these amenities being no less of a witness to the violence and cruelty of the prison’s history.
The former Warders’ Residence is the introduction to the tours, containing multimedia exhibits and artefacts as a depictive precursor of what visitors will see and hear. Visitors can choose to experience “B Division: Pentridge Through Time” for a comprehensive journey through the history of the site, “H Division: Unlocked” to confront the most appalling elements of this infamous wing, or opt for both tours consecutively. Each lasts for 90 minutes.
Following an introduction from a National Trust guide, our audio devices deliver a location-aware and immersive eyes-up experience for visitors as they explore the prison. Each space delves into its own theme—escapes, women in Pentridge, daily routines, mob inside, punishments, to name a handful—as the device plays corresponding narration from those who lived these experiences when the visitor enters the cell.
Various cells are set-dressed to faithfully render the austere living conditions of the prison during its operation, while others feature inmates as video projections to accompany the narration. Others feature object collections, and some specific cells have been preserved as closely as possible to their original condition.
More than providing visitors with deeply personal perspectives on the complexities of Pentridge’s history, the experiences we delivered provoke contemplation on the nature of transgression, retribution, and rehabilitation—ultimately revealing our own ethos as a human collective in the present day.
“From the beginning of this project, we’ve done a lot of thinking—and we may not necessarily have the answer—on the purpose of retaining a prison as a public space after its closure. There are the historical aspects, of course, where it’s fascinating to glimpse a world that’s very distant from our own. But I’m hoping people will think about the bigger question of why prisons exist, and how we choose to treat people who have transgressed what we consider to be legal or condoned behaviour. Prisons are closed-off spaces and most of us are unaware of the conditions inside, so it’s very easy to not think about the people within them.”
– Kate Chmiel,
Senior Content Developer, Art Processors