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. 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.
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.
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. Now Tasmania had a set of its very own gothic ruins, and it did not hesitate to advertise them as such. The presence of ghostly spectres became the subversive drawcard, an idea that continues in the tourist offerings to this day.
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. 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. Archaeology started on the site in 1977, followed quickly by conservation and a more organised tourist program. Forty years later, 350,000 people visit Port Arthur annually, including several thousand from cruise ships which berth just off-shore.
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.
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. A decade later, this new ‘Tasmanian Museum’ celebrated opening longer hours and attracting 1000 visitors annually. 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.
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. 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. Likewise, institutions and heritage sites are deepening their connections with palawa artists and experts to tell the history better.
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.
- Findlay, James. “Cinematic Landscapes, Dark Tourism and the Ghosts of Port Arthur.” History Australia 16, no. 4 (October 2, 2019): 678–94. https://doi.org/10.1080/14490854.2019.1670072.
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 W Bryden, “Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery: Historical Note,” Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania 100 (1966): 21–26.
 Mary Koolhof, “Apology by the Royal Society of Tasmania to the Aboriginal People of Tasmania” (Hobart, Australia, February 15, 2021), https://rst.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/RST-2021-Apology-to-Tasmanian-Aboriginal-People-for-the-web.pdf (last accessed 8 July 2021).; Brett Torossi, “Apology to Tasmanian Aboriginal People” (Hobart, Australia, Department of State Growth, February 15, 2021), https://www.tmag.tas.gov.au/about_us/apology_to_tasmanian_aboriginal_people (last accessed 8 July 2021).
 “‘We Made a Mistake’: Dark Mofo Pulls the Plug on ‘deeply Harmful’ Indigenous Blood Work,” The Guardian, March 23, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2021/mar/23/we-made-a-mistake-dark-mofo-pulls-the-plug-on-deeply-harmful-indigenous-blood-work (last accessed 8 July 2021).
 Nunami Sculthorpe-Green, takara nipaluna, 2021, https://www.tendays.org.au/program/takara-nipaluna/ (last accessed 8 July 2021).
 For example, see: “Wukalina Walk | Bay of Fires Walk,” wukalina walk | Bay of Fires Walk, accessed May 11, 2021, https://www.wukalinawalk.com.au (last accessed 8 July 2021).; “Annual Report 2012-13” (Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, 2013), 25, https://www.tmag.tas.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/81908/Web_Annual_report_2012-13.pdf (last accessed 8 July 2021); Alexandra Alvaro, “University of Tasmania’s New Subject Aims to ‘indigenise’ Teaching,” ABC News Online, May 30, 2021, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-05-31/tas-mon-utas-indigenous-learning-on-country/100176826 (last accessed 8 July 2021).
© 2021 The Author.
Wegman, Imogen: Love It? Hate It? It’s Still Tasmania’s History. In: Public History Weekly 9 (2021) 7, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2021-18711.
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