Please note the following blog post contains mention of an exhibition responding to stories of survival that were uncovered during the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
This is Macca – an excellent front-of-house staff member who was a comforting presence during my visit. The Lock-up in Newcastle combines an old heritage building with contemporary art shows that don’t shy away from difficult topics. Although my visit challenged me, I kept thinking about how critical it is to have this space to display reflective and empowering works surrounding traumatic issues. The focus of my blog post will be on the building itself and its history. I will briefly mention the exhibition currently on display, but there will be no images.
Building History and Heritage
No surprises here, but the lock-up refers to the building’s past as a police lock-up situated next to Newcastle Police Station. Prior to the 1860s, those convicted of a crime were sent to cells under the Court House to await their trial. The usual period of detainment was a few days. However, the longest recorded stay was 42 days. From here, those convicted were either released or moved to, for example, Maitland Gaol after receiving their sentencing. As the city grew, so too did the need for a new police station. What you can see today is the building completed in 1861, designed by Mortimer Lewis Jnr. There were a few demolishes, and extensions between 1867 and 1926. One of these extensions added an exercise yard that you can still visit today.
The lock-up closed in 1982. A few years later, the Hunter Heritage Centre moved in and opened a museum with accommodation for artists in residence. They also established an exhibition space. This operated until 2014 when The Lock-up re-launched itself as, according to their website, a ‘dedicated multidisciplinary contemporary arts space, dedicated to presenting contemporary and experimental arts within a historical building.’
Today, the building is listed in the New South Wales Heritage Register. It functions both as a heritage place but also an award-winning contemporary art space dedicated to training, exhibiting, and supporting the local community and artists.
Balancing Heritage + Art
Overall, I would say that the balance between acknowledging the heritage/history of the building and displaying art is incredible. Both are equally acknowledged and share the space rather than competing against each other. Here is how both are presented and represented:
The current exhibition on display is titled Loud Sky. The exhibition showcases the art of five local artists responding to stories of survival uncovered through the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2016. I have decided not to write about it as I couldn’t do it justice. It is such a powerful exhibition that should be experienced in-person if that’s something you’re comfortable doing. Instead, here is some more general comments on how art is displayed.
The artworks are distributed throughout the building including in the cells and exercise yard. There is the capacity to not only have physical works on display, but digital ones too. These were projected on screens and walls very effectively. The only location that didn’t have a display is the padded cell. This was added in 1893 and used to house prisoners who were at risk of harming themselves. It is believed to be one of the best-preserved cells of its type in Australia. In 2023, it underwent a conservation process so might open in the future.
Not only is there contemporary art on display, but the graffiti covering the walls from past detainees can also be regarded art. I suggest you take the time to read this graffiti that has been etched into the walls using some kind of sharp object. In the cells that held female detainees, some is painted onto the walls with red nail polish.
Last but not least, if you enjoy textiles there is a gallery and shop displaying some local pieces.
There are plaques in the building that refer to its heritage and remind visitors that they are inside a heritage-listed building. I’ve included an example below of the plaque relating to Cell B. These are well worth reading as you make your way around.
I would strongly recommend visiting The Lock-up as both a heritage and art experience. Entry is free and the majority is accessible. Loud Sky is closing soon (21 May) but there are some fascinating upcoming exhibitions: https://thelockup.org.au/whats-on/.
From their website: We encourage visitors to come to the exhibition with a friend, family or support person. If this topic raises any concerns for you, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, DV Connect on 1800 811 811, or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.