Tasmania's journal of discovery: Antarctica

 

::: HISTORY & HERITAGE

Port Arthur Gothic

By JULIA CLARK | The white box is dead! This museum reeks of atmosphere— dark, oppressive, gloomy, some say Gothic. Located in a former dormitory of the Lunatic Asylum, it loudly proclaims itself a new museum while whispering of its past use.

The great prison reformer Jeremy Bentham provided its theme; his Penitentiary, on which Port Arthur's system was modelled, was 'a machine for grinding rogues honest'. Mounted on a wall at the entrance are schematic representations of the three main cogs in this machine; the Bible for religious and moral instruction; the hammer for work and trade training; the whip for discipline and punishment.

beds that may once have held the sad, broken men classed as 'lunatic' — the mentally disabled, depressed, delusional, demented flotsam of the convict system

Inside, cases of blackened and rusty steel, mounted on wheels, march down the room in two rows. In their fabric and architecture they refer both to beds and to machines. Their arrangement mirrors the rows of beds that may once have held the sad, broken men classed as 'lunatic' — the mentally disabled, depressed, delusional, demented flotsam of the convict system. Each is signed within by an iconic image that identifies the contents, arranged under topics like 'Work' or, more surprisingly, 'Recreation'.

These are not historic images as might be expected, drawn from the many collections of images that show Port Arthur and its inmates, bond and free, in their 19th century setting. Rather they are modern images, photographed by Peter Whyte, in colour, of men and women in 19th century dress.

One shows a brawny, tattooed arm holding a hammer and chisel; another, a woman walking up a flight of steps in a garden. The disjunction between colour images and 19th century figures is jarring, confusing, unexpected.

They reach across time towards us, claiming kinship and familiarity. They say to the viewer, once we were as you are. We did not live in a black and white world; we were not simply two-dimensional figures in a landscape, distant, mute, anonymous; we did not only exist on the pages of convict records. We were once flesh and blood, young and strong, sentient beings like you. Like you, we worked, we took what pleasures we could, we ate, slept, marched, suffered and, finally, died.

This is one of the important lessons that Port Arthur has to teach us. We do not believe, as the poet Philip Larkin would have it, that 'the past is a foreign country/they do things differently there'. We believe that there is much, too much, that is tragically familiar.

And saddest of all, those fed into the maw of Port Arthur's machine are essentially the same people as find themselves behind bars today

We still wrestle with the same questions about the nature of crime and criminality, about how to achieve both punishment and reform. We still arrive at the same facile, punitive solutions. We still build prisons that warp and torture and break those unlucky enough to be fed into the machine. And saddest of all, those fed into the maw of Port Arthur's machine are essentially the same people as find themselves behind bars today - the poor, the uneducated, the mentally ill, the losers in any society, whether it is 19th century or 21st century.

Meet them in the new Port Arthur museum. And recognise yourself. ¶

Julia Clark is Manager, Interpretation & Collections, Port Arthur Historic Site