Heritage Management

Separate Prison exercise yard gates where convicts could exercise for just one hour per day

Separate Prison Exercise Yard Gates(Credit: PAHSMA (photo by Andrew Ross), 2009)

Separate Prison Conservation Project

The Separate Prison is an extraordinary building within the Port Arthur Historic Site. It stands as demonstration of the changing attitudes worldwide to punishment in the middle of the 19th century.

The discussion was raging across the globe about the benefits of the shift from harsh physical punishment to that of isolation and reform. At the time of closure of Norfolk Island and the height of activity at Port Arthur accommodation of repeat offenders was becoming less available.

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The construction of the Separate Prison based on the Pentonville system was strategically placed within the penal settlement both physically and psychologically. The dominant structure was placed on a rise for all to see from outside the imposing walls. The system that was imposed within the walls was that of a machine – a silent one at that. Those who were sentenced to time in the Separate Prison were subjected to a loss of personal identity and spent their time in solitude and silence.

For the past three years Port Arthur Historic Site with funding assistance from both Tasmanian and Commonwealth Governments, has been working toward providing a rich and evocative experience for visitors to the Separate Prison.

Stage 1

The Separate Prison Conservation Project Plan by Design 5 – Architect Pty Ltd was completed in 2003. The plan set the guidelines for the development of a conservation project, the first stage of which was completed in 2008. The design team put together by Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects in Sydney was selected to take the project forward. In 2007 PAHSMA received a generous grant from the Australian Government through the National Heritage Investment Initiative. This was matched by a budget commitment from PAHSMA to allow Stage 1 to commence. The budget for this stage of the project was in excess of $1 million.

The project was designed in five stages, the first concentrating on the life of the convicts imprisoned within the building. This story is now demonstrated in A Wing. Five cells have been conserved and allow the visitor to see how a convict worked, ate and slept in his cell for 23 hours a day. As the convict entered the prison he was read the rules and ‘stripped’ of identity. The exercise yards are back in place between A and B Wing, following reconstruction work to internal and external walls. The prison now presents in its original and imposing form – a mass of high walls, low roofs and no opening – recreating the atmosphere of intimidation and looming threat that would have been the daily experience of inmates at the penal settlement.

This conservation project relied on extensive research and the exceptional skills of our staff. Artisans and tradesmen from across Tasmania – and some from even further afield –contributed to the success of this major conservation initiative.

Following the completion of Stage 1, The Separate Prison was reopened on 13 August 2008 by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Premier David Bartlett.

Stage 2

The second stage focussed on the chapel, the extraordinary space within the Separate Prison where inmates were secured into individual box cubicles so that they could not see their fellow inmates, just the preacher in front of them. But in this space, inmates were permitted to sing.

The highlight of the experience is an extraordinary multi-channel audio installation that recreates the sounds of the sermons and the hymns of the Separate Prison chapel.

 ”Rewards of Silence” by WAX Sound Media, Sonia Leber and David Chesworth is an evocative new experience for visitors to Port Arthur. As visitors listen to the sound, they can move about the chapel. From out the front, visitors can hear the combined sound of male voices, but as they move towards the pews, individual voices can be heard, with regional accents reflecting the areas convicts were sent from in Britain.

In addition to conservation work on the fabric of the stonework and structure, this stage involved creating recreations of the guard boxes and pulpit, produced by interpreting of historic photographs with the aid of computerised modelling by local craftsman Peter Rigozzi.

The pulpit is a massive piece of furniture built by Peter while Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority’s own highly skilled Building and Works crew constructed the guard boxes and conserved the Chapel.

The completion of this stage was celebrated with a gathering of local community members in March 2010.

Stage 3

The interpretive works in C Wing aim to tell the full story of the Pentonville system and development of the Separate Prison at Port Arthur, as well as introduce the visitor to a number of its former inhabitants.

Using touchscreens, the visitor can access information about the building’s use. Through a peephole in the cell doors a ghostly face will look back at the viewer, one of 17 men associated with the prison, as architect, administrator, critic or inmate. Their stories are told on a panel on the door.

In a dark room an artwork 3x3 metres presents a mosaic of 175 tiny light boxes embedded in a wall of hooded faces. On each lightbox is a photographic portrait of a former inmate.

This stage was completed in the Spring of 2010.

Stage 4

The final stage of this massive project will involve stabilisation of ‘B’ Wing, which will largely be left in its current ruinous condition. It will be made safe to view and protected from the elements so that the full story of this extraordinary building is available to the visitor.

It is expected that the entire project will be completed in early 2012.