Love It? Hate It? It’s Still Tasmania’s History

Tasmania has a curious relationship with its cultural heritage, and a long history of both embracing and rejecting it simultaneously. Over time, however, attitudes have shifted. Today, cultural institutions, heritage sites and tourist hotspots are trying to tell a wider range of stories that incorporate more perspectives. The result is that people are learning about the bad alongside the good, and demanding more.
Languages: English

One of my enduring childhood memories comes from school camp when I was about eleven. We were staying on a farm in southern Tasmania. After dinner one evening, we were bundled in the coach and driven to nearby ruins which had dealt so much punishment to unruly convicts. It was dark, it was spooky, and we were there to see some ghosts.

A Curious Relationship

I remember having the deep skepticism of an eleven-year-old. I also remember a boy jumping out from a pitch-black cell to make one of my classmates wet herself. We probably all found it hilarious at the time, it has certainly stayed in my mind. But that evening was also my first exposure to the world of dark tourism, with its associated creepy aesthetic. I went away with a profound sense of discomfort that was only partially caused by guilt about laughing.

Australia’s island state of Tasmania has a curious relationship with its cultural heritage. Its convict past has transformed from a shameful burden to a commercial boon. Today we also see long-oppressed Indigenous heritage emerging, with the palawa/pakana people (Tasmanian Aborigines) fighting to bring parts of their culture and stories back into the public gaze. The contradictions of shame and commercialism are not new but, arguably, Tasmania now handles them with more nuance. The island’s cultural scene has always catered to niche interests, starting with private scientific collections in the colonial period and expanding outwards until it can offer a niche for every interest.

The Most Famous of Historic Sites

Tasmania’s most famous heritage site, the Port Arthur penitentiary, provides a convenient exemplar of the complicated relationship Tasmania has had with its dark histories.[1] In the management of Port Arthur as a tourist site, we can see the ebb and flow of public attitude towards the circumstances that created the Tasmania of today.

The first European settlement in Van Diemen’s Land (renamed Tasmania in 1856) was located near Hobart in 1803. Convicts came on the very first ships, and for the next fifty years, the island functioned as a prison with 76,000 convicts sent from across the Empire. Port Arthur was a significant prison within this system, housing thousands of male offenders who built the very walls that contained them. Convict archaeology now litters the landscape of all Tasmania and it has been calculated that three quarters of Tasmanians have at least one convict in their family tree. In recent years, the island has experienced an influx of family historians seeking a story.[2]

Seventy years ago, however, those convicts went unacknowledged. Families often lied outright, or use euphemisms like having an ‘entrepreneur’ in their line, or someone who ‘came to work for the government’. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, Port Arthur transformed into a site that commemorates the convict system with all it entailed.

Conflicting Priorities

When Port Arthur closed in 1877, it almost immediately became a tourist drawcard, with former residents leading tours of the gruesome buildings. This enthusiasm for such recent convict history was at odds with the guidebooks and the Tasmanian Tourism Association, which proactively sought to erase the penal heritage. When a bushfire tore through the site in 1897, great celebrations heralded its final cleansing and transformation into the peaceful township of Carnarvon.[3] Now Tasmania had a set of its very own gothic ruins, and it did not hesitate to advertise them as such.[4] The presence of ghostly spectres became the subversive drawcard, an idea that continues in the tourist offerings to this day.[5]

Throughout the 1920s and 30s, as James Findlay has uncovered, the ruins of the penitentiary were used as the backdrop for filmed travelogues and convict tales.[6] Despite official attempts to erase the convict history of the site, twentieth-century tourists could not be kept away, wanting to see the “‘horrors’ of a penal station” for themselves.[7] Archaeology started on the site in 1977, followed quickly by conservation and a more organised tourist program.[8] Forty years later, 350,000 people visit Port Arthur annually, including several thousand from cruise ships which berth just off-shore.[9]

If we expand this picture of Port Arthur outwards, it is possible to generalise to gain a better understanding of the broader picture of how the public engages with history in Tasmania. There has always been an interest in the macabre, whether in a colonial anatomy collection, the ruins of a convict asylum, or today the darkness of the mid-winter Dark Mofo festival. What we have seen in Tasmania has been a shift in how people position themselves in relation to these displays. A century ago, Port Arthur was a site of spectacle but people distanced themselves from the suggestion they may have a personal connection to it. Today, people scour the brickwork of the Convict Brick Trail and the walls of the Cascades Female Factory, looking for their ancestors’ names.[10]

The Legacy of Collecting

Every year, thousands of visitors and locals patronise the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) and the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (QVMAG) to enjoy their exhibitions, such as Our land: parrawa parrawa! Go away! (TMAG) or Southern Skies (QVMAG). That 500,000 people would visit these two museums each year was probably unimaginable to early members of the Royal Society who, in 1843, started to consolidate the scientific and cultural artefacts held by Tasmanian mechanics’ institutes and private collectors.[11] A decade later, this new ‘Tasmanian Museum’ celebrated opening longer hours and attracting 1000 visitors annually.[12] They exhibited the flora and fauna of Tasmania, with Indigenous objects a central feature. The nineteenth century’s wanton collecting left a legacy of desecrated palawa cultural sites, with Ancestral Remains traded and scattered across the world. In 2021 the Royal Society of Tasmania and TMAG issued a joint apology for the harms conducted by them and in their names.[13]

This apology is indicative of the increasing sense of unease about the untold histories, and an accompanying push to tell them the right way. In 2021, Dark Mofo was forced to cancel a planned exhibition in response to outrage about a non-Indigenous artist seeking First Nations blood for his piece.[14] Anecdotally, public appetite seems to be moving towards collaborative Indigenous-led projects. Just a month after Dark Mofo ended, NAIDOC week saw a repeat of takara nipaluna, an Aboriginal history walking tour of Hobart’s waterfront that was launched earlier in the year.[15] Likewise, institutions and heritage sites are deepening their connections with palawa artists and experts to tell the history better.[16]

It was as a precocious eleven-year-old that I first encountered the discomfort of badly-told history after that school trip when our guides competently worked us into a terrified frenzy. On a recent visit, I suddenly remembered that poor pant-wetter, and also my disquiet about the mistreatment of the site’s story. Today, Tasmania still has its collection of heritage buildings and ruins, and interpretation plaques can be found at every corner. But over the course of a few decades, the narrative has changed, and now locals and visitors engage with a wider range of stories. Ghost tours still exist, but now they tell about all the ghosts, not just the familiar ones.


Further Reading

Web Resources


[1] “History Timeline,” Port Arthur Historic Site, accessed July 7, 2021, (last accessed 8 July 2021).
[2] Merran Williams, “Stain or Badge of Honour? Convict Heritage Inspires Mixed Feelings,” The Conversation, June 8, 2015, (last accessed 8 July 2021).
[3] James Findlay, “Cinematic Landscapes, Dark Tourism and the Ghosts of Port Arthur,” History Australia 16, no. 4 (October 2, 2019): 681,
[4] Nicola Goc, “From Convict Prison to the Gothic Ruins of Tourist Attraction,” Historic Environment 16, no. 3 (2002): 22–26.
[5] Emma Waterton and Hayley Saul, “Ghosts of the Anthropocene: Spectral Accretions at the Port Arthur Historic Site,” Landscape Research 46, no. 3 (April 3, 2021): 363–64,
[6] Findlay, “Cinematic Landscapes, Dark Tourism and the Ghosts of Port Arthur.”
[7] “History Timeline.”
[8] Williams, “Stain or Badge of Honour? Convict Heritage Inspires Mixed Feelings.”
[9] “Annual Report 2018-19” (Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority, 2019), (last accessed 8 July 2021).
[10] “Convict Brick Trail,” Northern Midlands Council, accessed July 8, 2021, (last accessed 8 July 2021).; Cascades Female Factory, accessed July 8, 2021, (last accessed 8 July 2021).
[11] “Annual Report 2018-19” (Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, 2019), (last accessed 8 July 2021); “Annual Report 2018-19” (Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, 2019); Peter Mercer, “Museums,” in The Companion to Tasmanian History (Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies, 2006), (last accessed 8 July 2021).
[12] W Bryden, “Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery: Historical Note,” Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania 100 (1966): 21–26.
[13] Mary Koolhof, “Apology by the Royal Society of Tasmania to the Aboriginal People of Tasmania” (Hobart, Australia, February 15, 2021), (last accessed 8 July 2021).; Brett Torossi, “Apology to Tasmanian Aboriginal People” (Hobart, Australia, Department of State Growth, February 15, 2021), (last accessed 8 July 2021).
[14] “‘We Made a Mistake’: Dark Mofo Pulls the Plug on ‘deeply Harmful’ Indigenous Blood Work,” The Guardian, March 23, 2021, (last accessed 8 July 2021).
[15] Nunami Sculthorpe-Green, takara nipaluna, 2021, (last accessed 8 July 2021).
[16] For example, see: “Wukalina Walk | Bay of Fires Walk,” wukalina walk | Bay of Fires Walk, accessed May 11, 2021, (last accessed 8 July 2021).; “Annual Report 2012-13” (Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, 2013), 25, (last accessed 8 July 2021); Alexandra Alvaro, “University of Tasmania’s New Subject Aims to ‘indigenise’ Teaching,” ABC News Online, May 30, 2021, (last accessed 8 July 2021).


Image Credits

 © 2021 The Author.

Recommended Citation

Wegman, Imogen: Love It? Hate It? It’s Still Tasmania’s History. In: Public History Weekly 9 (2021) 7, DOI:

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    A Hopeful Piece

    I’d like to begin by thanking Imogen Wegman for their insightful and provoking piece on the shifting landscape of public history in Tasmania. Their hopeful piece, tempered by a critical reading of shifts in thinking about the past, is a valuable contribution to thinking about ongoing efforts to better represent and frame the fraught dimensions of Tasmanian (and Australian) history. I’d like to take up three thoughts provoked by their argument to extend the conversation.

    In their piece, Wegman has suggested that the narrative of Tasmania, by way of public institutional shifts, is beginning to change, and that, by implication, the relationship of these institutions to the past has also changed. To this point, I would agree, although I would add the caveat that this shift is heavily regulated by public renderings of the past that resist efforts to unsettle the main settler thread of historical imaginaries. Or, put differently and to use the language of critical race theory, shifts in the past that accommodate the violence of history is allowed for when said allowance converges with the interests of the institution and the public.[1] While I seek here not to disagree with Wegman as I am inclined to agree with the conclusion about the changing ideological and imaginative tide, I’m inclined to argue that this change is still constrained and will move only as fast as the institutions are comfortable moving.

    Second, I want to speak to one point offered by Wegman about the bringing to the fore of a challenge that we both appear to be confronting: the safety of temporal distance in shaping comforts with violent histories. In highlighting Tasmanians’ willingness to now “scour the brickwork […] looking for their ancestors’ names,” we are reminded of how the passage of time allows for a reimagined relationship with history whereby temporal distance makes for an easier entrance of that past into contemporary historical consciousness. Here, we find ourselves very much in agreement, although I’m always aware of how efforts are frequently made to displace violence to the past and contain it there.[2] While it is not the case that Wegman is denying such point, it is worth highlighting that the willingness to embrace the violence of the past can be made palatable if it is the case that “we” in the present are imagined as not doing what “they” did in the past.

    A final point that I wish to speak to provoked by Wegman’s interesting and engaging exploration of Tasmanian public history pertains to the tension at work between institutional willingness to think and exist in relation to the past in new ways and the broader public commitment to memory work that runs counter to these better ways of thinking through and with the past. In my own work, I look to how place-naming practices narrate a public memory of white colonial invasion, cementing (quite literally) commemorations to invaders and violence as banal artefacts of everyday life.[3] Place-names, subject to what Maoz Azaryahu calls “semantic displacement” – the supersession of historical meaning by geographic function[4] – often operate as a language of public memory unabated, immune to critical reading by virtue of their functional value. Emptied of historical meaning, place-names work to crystallise a public memory of white supremacy in the language of home, community, and public spaces. When I speak of my home of Townsville, for example, I call into consciousness the legacy of a man – Robert Towns – whose place in the memory of Townsville is decidedly tense, with the city itself asking the question “visionary or villain?” on a placard next to a statue of him in the city. Towns was an entrepreneur who established Queensland’s first cotton plantation and was the first to charter a ship – the Don Juan – to find ‘labourers’ from the South Sea Islands to work in Queensland. The name of the community itself is not the only monument to a contentious history; the city’s streets are a testament to invasion, with most streets echoing a vision of this place as imaginable through the white, male bodies of the Australian grand settler narrative. Tasmania is no different. The state, named for a Dutch explorer is home to Hobart, a city named for a British Lord. Moreover, the place of David Collins in the city’s (and state’s) history is crystallised in Collins St., a toponym that cements a memory of someone whose work, “came to hold an influential place in the development of racial thought about Aboriginal people.”[5] Indeed, Collins’s own “An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales” includes appendices that paint a rather disturbing colonial portrait of the Indigenous peoples he encountered.[6]

    I look to place-names above as they offer a portrait of the placial tensions at work in public histories. The institutions that do better work do so at places named for invaders and the regal figures that they acted in the name of. Public histories are taken up in ‘royal’ institutions often named for the states that they find themselves, many of which are named after colonial peoples or places (Victoria, Tasmania, New South Wales, Queensland) or those that incorporate Matthew Flinders’s preferred pronunciation for this place: Australia (Western Australia, South Australia). These naming practices speak to the bigger problem of mundane languages and beliefs about place and its history that perpetually and persistently cast the narratives told as those that must be read in relation to imaginaries of place that are entangled with colonial languages of “here.” Challenging this is difficult; a common response to perceived threats to place-names is that the names are (as noted) emptied of meaning and divested of the memor(y/ies) that they commemorate. As scholars, we sometimes forget this as well, with Rose-Redwood and Alderman arguing that even those who critically interrogate naming often preoccupy themselves with the more obvious troubling toponyms to the exclusion of those that are decidedly more banal.[7] What this suggests is that the needed work outlined by Wegman is part of a complicated effort to confront histories and memory work that also requires a careful attention paid to the more mundane meanings communicated by institutions.

    To conclude, Wegman provides an insightful portrait into the ongoing work to recast the past as a place of more complexity than many of us have long been led (or taught) to believe was possible. I, too, experience a “disquiet about the mistreatment” of stories in/of place and, like Wegman, see increasing “unease” in how we talk about the place. These feelings are hopeful and, mobilised properly, can help us better think and imagine the role of the public (space) as a medium for the stories of “us” and “here.”



    [1] A. Dixson and C. Rousseau Anderson, “Where Are We? Critical Race Theory in Education 20 Years Later,” Peabody Journal of Education 93, no. 1 (2018): 121–31; D. Gillborn, “Critical Race Theory and Education: Racism and Anti-Racism in Educational Theory and Praxis,” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 27, no. 1 (2006): 11–32.
    [2] K. Montgomery, “Imagining the Antiracist State: Representations of Racism in Canadian History Textbooks,” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 26, no. 4 (2005): 427–42; N. Ng-A-Fook and B. Smith, “Doing Oral History as a Praxis of Reconciliation: Curriculum, Teacher Education & Historical Thinking,” in Oral History and Education: Theories, Dilemmas, and Practices, ed. K. Llewellyn and N. Ng-A-Fook (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 65–86.
    [3] B. Smith, “Engaging Geography at Every Street Corner: Using Place-Names as Critical Heuristic in Social Studies,” The Social Studies 109, no. 2 (2018): 112–24; B. Smith, “Cartographies of Colonial Commemoration: Critical Toponymy and Historical Geographies in Toronto,” Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies 15, no. 2 (2017): 34–47; K. Thumlert et al., “Space Is the Place: Pre-Service Teachers Re/Map Cartographic Landscapes,” Digital Culture & Education 12, no. 1 (2020): 52–71.
    [4] M. Azaryahu, “Naming the Past: The Significance of Commemorative Street Names,” in Critical Toponymies: The Contested Politics of Naming, ed. Lawrence Berg and Jani Vuolteenaho (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2009), 53–70.
    [5] R. Standfield, “‘These Unoffending People’: Myth, History and the Idea of Aboriginal. Resistance in David Collins’ Account of the English Colony in New South Wales,” in Passionate Histories: Myth, Memory, and Indigenous Australia, ed. F. Peters-Little, A. Curthoys, and J. Docker (Canberra, ACT: ANU E Press, 2010), 134.
    [6] D. Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, Vol. 1 With Remarks On The Dispositions, Customs, Manners, Etc. Of The Native Inhabitants Of That Country. To Which Are Added, Some Particulars Of New Zealand. (London, U.K.: T. Cadell Jun. and W. Davies, in the Strand, 1798).
    [7] R. Rose-Redwood and D. Alderman, “Critical Interventions in Political Toponymy,” ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 10, no. 1 (2011): 1–6.

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