The first stage of a decade-long project to conserve and reinterpret the Separate Prison at the Port Arthur Historic Site is nearing completion.
Poor-quality reconstructions and inappropriate building materials, such as the concrete that was used in the 1960s and 70s have been removed. The original roof form – twin gables – has been reinstated over ‘A’ Wing.
The most apparent change is the reinstatement of the perimeter walls of the exercise yards. Reconstruction of buildings at Port Arthur is an unusual step. The approach generally preferred is to preserve as much of the original fabric as possible, and to take steps to ensure its long-term protection.
However in the case of the Separate Prison, one of the most significant heritage structures at the Site, it was felt that the meaning of the building could not be understood in any other way, so reconstruction was deemed appropriate. Heritage authorities at all levels of Government, whose approval for the work was required, along with a range of independent heritage experts and organisations who were consulted, all agreed with this view.
It was felt that a sense of ‘total control and enclosure’ needed to be recreated, to enable visitors to fully experience and comprehend the isolation, control and dominance of the building in Port Arthur’s penal landscape. However the reconstruction has been done in such a way that the new materials will be readily distinguished from the old, so that visitors can still understand what is original fabric, and what is new.
Cell ceilings, doors and floors are being reinstated in ‘A’ Wing. Internally, the building will again present a neat, orderly appearance, with mats on the floor, white walls and bright lighting. However, wherever possible we will be keeping evidence that shows an important part of the history of the building – its decline through abandonment.
The new visitor experience
The works will result in a new and powerful experience for visitors to the Historic Site. Upon entry, visitors will pass a wall on which the many Rules and Regulations of the Separate Prison are written. As they proceed, they will also hear those Rules being read out, as they were to each man who was imprisoned.
On entering the Prison, visitors will pass into ‘A’ Wing, where six cells will be reconstructed and refurnished, to show how men would have used them at different times of the day – waking, sleeping, eating, working.
Passing out into an exercise yard, the reconstructed walls will enclose visitors; all they will see is the sky, imposing the same sense of ‘being trapped’ as would have been experienced by the men at exercise who were imprisoned in the building.
As the construction work winds down, installation of interpretive elements will continue over the next couple of months before ‘A Wing’ and the exercise yards are reopened to the public.
This stage of the project will be completed and the experience available to visitors by July 2008. The work has been funded jointly by the Federal Government through the National Heritage Investment Initiative and the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority.
Several further stages of conservation and interpretation at the Separate Prison will be implemented over the next few years.