Fremantle Prison – Behind the Scenes

This is my second post on Fremantle Prison. If you want to read any history of the Prison, or the tours I did last weekend, then click here. This post is going to focus solely on the behind the scenes tour I went on yesterday evening as part of the Australian Museums and Galleries Association National Conference. I really hope to write a summary of the conference on Saturday/Sunday but we shall see. Back to the Prison. I absolutely had to write a post about the tour because it was so insightful covering the amazing work happening and their conservation strategy. I’m going to talk about a few highlight moments, but first, a brief introduction.

Four Pillars of Heritage Management

The aim of this excursion/offsite visit was to learn about the conservation practices and heritage management plan of the Prison. In short, they work with four pillars of heritage management: conservation, community, governance, and engagement. Conservation is quite clear – ensuring that the building and its objects will survive and teach future generations. Community refers to making Fremantle Prison a safe place that tells honest stories reflecting the truth of the building’s history. Governance is having a management plan (and I was so glad to hear they have an Aboriginal Heritage Management Plan too) and complying with all relevant legislation. Finally, engagement is creating a space for people to connect with the Prison and its past. This was all covered in the introduction of the tour before we were led through the Prison to visit different staff members and hear about their roles and perspectives on the Prison. A huge thank you to Emily Craig-Wadham, Olimpia Cullity, Luke Donegan, Courtenay Heldt, Daniel Holland, Eleanor Lambert, and Dr Oonagh Quigley. Apologies if I missed anyone, I just typed out the names in my program. Here are a few highlights from the tour.

Artwork Conservation

One of my favourite parts of the tour was hearing all about their strategy for conserving artworks. A lot of the artworks were created by prisoners and were not meant to be long-lasting. This means the materials used, and the surfaces painted on, are not ideal for long-term conservation. Hearing about how the artworks inside the Prison are being conserved was fascinating. For example, one artwork peeling off the wall is going to be gradually and gently removed before being placed on a more suitable surface. Literally taking the artwork off the wall and re-attaching it to another surface. What conservators can do will never cease to amaze me.

Improving Accessibility

Heritage places are not always, but can be, complex spaces to manage from an accessibility perspective. One thing that was really clear in the presentations is how the Prison is aiming to improve accessibility. This includes mapping out a common tour path that is accessible and improving the ground, size of cell doorways, etc so that those with mobility issues can enjoy the same experience. So wonderful to see this work being integrated into broader conservation plans and really highlighted their commitment to engagement and community.

Exploring New Areas

We definitely visited many more areas of the Prison than what I saw on my tours. For example, I had not been to the Prison chapel and was really glad we spent some time there listening to a talk about the Prison artworks. We also got to go super behind the scenes and see some conservation work in action. Part of this included walking through the old prison morgue and Commissariat Store, which is undergoing some great conservation work. It was an amazing opportunity to see these areas of the Prison currently not open to the public.

Object Storage

I was excited to step into the visible storage rooms and see more of their collection. Objects we were shown included some convict shackles, prison shivs (made in the later years of the prison), and a printing press. An absolute highlight for me was the intact convict uniforms and a sleeve of a convict shirt. I said in my previous post that I do love convict history so I was particularly intrigued by the uniforms.

Archaeology in the Prison

Last, but certainly not least, we had a wonderful talk about how archaeology is managed at the Prison. Often we think of archaeology as digging down and finding things in the ground. However, it can also be what is behind walls and in ceilings. It was great to learn about the Prison’s archaeology plan and how they are making their work accessible to the public through easy-to-follow guides. The Prison team really wants that transparency with the work they do which I think everyone on the tour appreciated.

A huge thank you again to the passionate and enthusiastic team at the Prison who are doing incredible work managing this heritage place. It was such a beautiful evening in Fremantle and as we left the Prison we were treated to this stunning sunset. I think a very fitting image to end this post on.

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