Cartes postales du bagne

Map #3. The two hemispheres

Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney
15 July 2018

As with other penal heritage sites especially those related to convict transportation and the role of convict labour in colonial development, Hyde Park Barracks makes extensive use of maps throughout its exhibition. Notably there are huge floor maps on the ground floor which work to explain how present day Sydney evolved from its earlier function within the penal colony. This is a similar approach to the one taken at the Camp de la Transportation in Saint Laurent du Maroni with its ‘La Ville en chantier’ exhibition. The intention here is, to some extent, to validate convict labour in the making of the contemporary town and its infrastructure. The use of floor maps is also interesting in that they demand visitors to literal ‘walk over’ the re-presented history of the space Borges-style.

Huge floor map with key at Hyde Park Barracks

But the map that I found most striking at the Barracks was a large re-presentation of a map made in 1800 depicting the ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ Hemispheres. The map is used to mark the different European uses of convict transportation at various locations. This is interesting because it is possible to see French penal transportation in relation to other European colonial powers. Of course the main purpose is to emphasize the extent of transportation to Australia.

Western Hemisphere featuring references to transportation to French Guiana and New Caledonia

Hyde Park Barracks

15 July 2018

En route to New Caledonia for the next phase of site visits, I spent a couple of days in Sydney where I managed to visit both Cockatoo Island and Hyde Park Barracks. Built between 1817 and 1819 and designed by convict-architect Francis Greenway, around 50,000 convicts were thought to have passed through the barracks during the operation of the penal colony. Between 1848 and 1887, the building was used the Female Immigration Depot and subsequently by local government and the courts until the end of the 1970s.

Since 2010, the museum has been part of the UNESCO world heritage convict sites which incorporate 11 sites including Cockatoo Island. The history of the site as museum is far longer, dating from the end of the 1970s. Embedded in the museum is the presentation of its evolution to museum including reference at various to the politics of preservation and presentation at stake. In this respect, it seems to offer a model of ‘best practice’ for convict history as well as self-reflexivity in terms of the political and social function of a ‘museum’. As one panel informs visitors:

‘Everything you see is part of the history of this place. From the limewashed walls of the original convict dormitory to the galvanised iron duct to aircondition the modern museum. From the lowly rat who saved many possessions to the lofty wig that donned the judge in session.’

One of the core narratives running through the museum and especially in the room which reconstructs life for the immigrant women housed there between 1848 and 1887, is the role of archaeology in elucidating the everyday life of the site. This is not just taken for granted in the display of excavated objects. As well as a large exhibition focused on the excavation work and the objects found, individual objects and sets of objects are displayed within the women’s dormitory but framed with explanations as to what each object might tell us about various aspects of life at the Barracks. Nit combs found under the floorboards of the dormitories, for example, are used as evidence of both unsanitary conditions and attempts on the part of the women staying there to maintain hygiene. Seeds also found in the floorboards suggest eating in the dormitories as well as the mess but also give indications of a more varied diet than official records might suggest.


Downstairs in the museum but also at points throughout such as the stairwells, there is a concerted attempt to show different layers of history through the stripping away of paintwork and plaster. Interestingly, the extensive archaeological excavations taking place in the 1980s which yielded over 85,000 different items and fragments were only possible as a result of extensive renovations being carried out some of which might now be seen as working counter to preservation and conservation initiatives. I find this particularly interesting as a point of comparison with different sites in French Guiana related to the Administration Pénitentiaire where archaeological excavations have been very limited either due to lack of recognition or the fragility of remaining structures.

Layers of history at Hyde Park Barracks

Use and Abuse

The museum refers on several occasions to notion of ‘use and abuse’ that defined the convict system. This is perhaps one of most direct critiques I have ever seen in a prison museum that wasn’t a former site of political detention. But it is unclear how we should understand ‘use’ here. Does this imply a utopian ideal that was corrupted yet ultimately redeemed by the ‘successful’ colonial development built off the back of the convict system? Should we read it as critical of the idea of individuals as a means to an end, bodies as unpaid labour? Or does use refer to ‘useful’ here?

Elsewhere there is a more clear agenda set out as to the purpose of the museum within wider political/social agenda. There is a brief reference to the need to draw on history to understand contemporary context yet the space offers no real possibility for this except via the idea of valorisation convict contribution towards colonial development and removing the shame of this past for descendants of convicts. I found myself asking various questions about this: What about contemporary forms of detention? Immigration? What about the lack of options presented to those claiming refugee status? The ongoing use of islands as sites of incarceration and detention? Nauru? (see, for example, the recent Guardian opinion piece on this) Despite its larger claims, there is a limit to the self-reflexivity of the site in this respect.

Reimagining the space

In addition to the physical objects, historical maps and paintings and reconstructions of the living spaces, the museum has also commissioned artists to produce different interpretations of the convicts themselves. In one of the upstairs room, the space features a series of convict ‘shadows’, black life-sized cut outs with the stories of each convict represented etched onto their torsos. The same room features a ‘soundscape’ based on archival material reproduced as spoken word, noises associated with the space but also silences. The use of soundscapes at prison museums is a growing phenomenon. This one which shifted between different speakers in the room was quite hard to make out particularly when other visitors came into the room with their personal audioguides blaring.


One of the most enduring images of the Barracks was, for me, a photograph entitled ‘Flogged Back’ which was commissioned by the Historic Houses Trust NSW but is undated and has no information of the photographer. Underneath the photograph are a series of accounts of floggings given out to different convicts for various infractions. The visual presentation of direct, premeditated violence meted out by the penal authorities rather than the usual accounts of suffering produced through labour and deprivation is unusual both here and elsewhere. There is something both Christ-like and eroticised about this image. Although it is unlike anything else presented in the museum, it also highlights the redemptive discourse of convict labour once presented by the penal system itself and now reproduced by the museum in its affirmation of the role of convicts in the development of present-day Australia.


Cockatoo Island

14 July 2018

En route to New Caledonia for the next series of site visits, I stopped off in Sydney for a couple of days. I managed to visit a couple of sites, Cockatoo Island and Hyde Park Barracks which form part of the UNESCO world heritage Convict Sites. As such they are important examples of multi-sited penal heritage and as a result of their UNESCO status suggest various forms of ‘best practice’ in terms of accessibility, legibility and so on. There is work being done in both New Caledonia and French Guiana to produce a multi-sited concept of penal heritage and to use this as a basis for applying for UNESCO world heritage status. This is far more advanced in New Caledonia with the Itinéraire Bagne (a series of panels marking former convict sites at various sites across the South Province including Île des Pins). In French Guiana work is still being done to locate, map and document the various vestiges along the Maroni river which indicate the different camps and satellite operations organised around the Camp de la Transportation in Saint Laurent du Maroni and the Camp de la Rélégation at Saint Jean. Consequently, the sites in Sydney seem to be very useful in identifying different agendas and levels of community-led interest in convict heritage.

En route to Cockatoo Island

A short ferry hop from the Sydney Harbour terminal, Cockatoo Island was once home to convict labour. Like prison islands elsewhere, it was a site where those caught re-offending were sent. It was established in 1839 to deal with overcrowding on Norfolk Island. A prison within the penal colony. Convicts mined the sandstone which was used for building in Sydney as well as building the administrative buildings on the island itself. Later, after the closure of the penal settlement in 1869, the island is renamed Biloela (aboriginal for black or white cockatoo) in order to forget its convict history. It is used for shipbuilding but between 1871 and 1888 it also housed a reform school for girls. An orphanage for 500 boys was housed in an old ship docked on the island between 1871 and 1911. The island became a prison once more in 1888-1908. Today it’s possible to explore the old dockyard buildings as well as a small number of excavated cells only discovered in 2009, a year before the site acquired UNESCO status. You can also camp on the island.


There is an aesthetic of rust which dominates the island’s buildings and which inserts an important layer of history between the island’s use as a prison and its museification. Its  use as a reform school provides an interesting example of the link between education and incarceration that emerged with the 19th century notion of discipline. Similarly, the ship-orphanage cannot but evoke the earlier prison hulks which were a common feature in convict transportation. For me these also provide an important reminder of how the closure of one form of imprisonment often leads to different forms of detention or containment.

Dog Leg Tunnel through the sandstone

Given the proximity to Sydney harbour, doesn’t have the same sense of isolation as other prison islands. It is also a space that is quickly and cheaply accessed by regular ferries. While this does not necessarily mean it is visited by a wide range of local and tourist visitors, it does suggest a space that has the potential to be more embedded in community life and events (as indeed its brochure suggests – the Sydney Biennale was held there for the first time in 2008) than many former prison islands elsewhere which have since become luxury resorts only accessible by private boats or airplane. Its accessibility (together with its empty warehouses and rust aesthetic) also explain why it has been used for various film and tv shows including X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and Unbroken (2014).