Museum of Brisbane: Life in Irons

A while back I visited the Museum of Brisbane to see an amazing talk on convict tattoos. I promised to return and see the exhibition Life in Irons before it closed at the end of October. I honestly don’t know how time goes so quickly, but, I managed to pop in after work today to explore the exhibition in full.


History of Moreton Bay Colony

As you walk into the exhibition space you are greeted with a short thematic panel tracing the origins of the Moreton Bay Penal Colony, later Brisbane. To cut a long and complex story short, if convicts re-offended in Sydney they were sent to Moreton Bay where the remoteness and harsh conditions were intended to instil fear into them. Often Queensland is romanticised as the Sunshine State where you can swim at the beach all year long. Reading how this kind of environment can work against you was refreshing.

Between 1825 and 1839, approximately 3 000 convicts and 800 soldiers called Moreton Bay home. I will add here that the dates are contentious and many disagree with the start and end date of the colony. These years are what was quoted on the thematic panel. All that remains to tell this history are a few paper documents held in the Queensland State Archives and two buildings, the Windmill and Commissariat Store.

I mentioned in my convict tattoos post that there are many resources out there that allow you to really see what life was like as a convict in Moreton Bay. I strongly encourage you to have a read. There are some fascinating stories, especially of interactions between convicts and Indigenous populations.

Speaking of which, around the corner from the entrance was a map representing Indigenous Brisbane which was painted on the wall. A reminder that what we now call Brisbane wasn’t ‘discovered’ in 1825.

Digital Integration

As so few objects from this period remain, the exhibition was not object heavy. Sure there were quite a few archival documents on display, but, there really weren’t that many.

Instead, it appears the decision was made to integrate objects with technology and allow visitors to follow the life of someone in the Moreton Bay Colony. Special interactive cards were at the entrance each representing a different individual. I chose Mary Mcauley.

There were approximately five stations dotted around the exhibition where you could scan your card and read part of their story. It was well matched with what was on display. For example, near the plans to the Female Factory, it was revealed that Mary eventually became its matron.

Favourite Objects

Here were my four favourite archival documents on display:

1. Plan of the Female Factory

This plan was drawn in 1837. The purpose of the Female Factory was to separate female convicts and engage them in more domesticated tasks such as mending uniforms and cooking.

2. Chronological Register of Moreton Bay Penal Colony convicts

This document is pretty self-explanatory containing the names of all Moreton Bay Penal Colony convicts.

3. Book of Trials from the Moreton Bay Penal Colony

A great document outlining some of the punishments delivered in the Colony. Whippings were frequent occurrences.

4. Plan for the Commissariat Store

Considering the Commissariat Store building continues to exist, it was especially interesting to see the original plans.

I wish I could transcribe the handwriting in the register and trial documents, however, it was quite difficult to decipher. The mere fact that they remain, allows those who were sent here to not be forgotten.

There was a convict uniform on display that had been excavated underneath Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney. Without reading the label, it would be easy to assume this material memory had survived. Unfortunately, however, no uniforms have survived from Moreton Bay and it was on display as an example of what the uniforms may have looked like.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I thought the exhibition worked as a display for this archival material and to show this memory of Brisbane. I was disappointed that it didn’t really tackle deep topics. It was sort of a lovely nice exhibition and not one to spark conversations about our past that might be difficult. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with an exhibition like that, but, there was great opportunity here that was missed.

I would recommend the exhibition to anyone who has a great appreciation of archival material. The plans and registers were stunning. I also thought the digital was quite well integrated and meant you had a connection throughout the display to an individual and placed the documents in their context. It would be interesting to go through the exhibition again and select a different individual to see the documents through a new perspective.

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