The complexity of dark storytelling within Pentridge Prison

The interior of B Division inside Pentridge Prison, showing cell blocks to the left and right and a staircase going up to the first floor in the middle.

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Melbourne’s infamous Pentridge Prison ceased its operations in 1997. A quarter of a century later, the prison’s B Division and H Division will soon open to the public for tours following extensive urban renewal of the surrounding precinct. Art Processors led the development and implementation of these immersive visitor experiences, offering powerful and confronting storytelling through immersive audio and interpretive exhibition design.

Out of sight, out of mind. For almost 150 years the iron and bluestone of Pentridge Prison separated us from those who were judged to be transgressors of society’s laws. In committing these individuals to state captivity, we walled in more than just inmates. We also concealed the complexities of their circumstances, their identities, and their lives in prison. Shrouded behind those walls, too, is the dark heritage of Victoria’s penal system.

Some of these stories, much like some of the prisoners, never left Pentridge. But those who have spoken of their experiences there—whether as inmates or otherwise—shed light on a reality we are often reluctant to confront.

To ensure the history of Pentridge is not forgotten, we partnered with the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) to create a series of experiences inside its heritage buildings for visitors to learn about the unsettling truths of the site—from its ongoing status as Wurundjeri land, the foundations of the Pentridge Stockade in 1851, the dehumanising ‘separate and silent’ methods of 19th-century detention, through to housing some of Victoria’s most infamous 20th-century criminals in the notorious H Division until the prison’s decommissioning in 1997.

“This is a big step for the National Trust,” says Robert Kercher, Tourism Project Manager at the National Trust. “It’s one of the largest properties we’ve inherited, so to speak, for quite some time. It needed the attention of someone who could put plans to paper and get things moving forward. A lot of that was selecting the right teams to work with, and that’s where Art Processors came along—we wanted a perfect fit to create something new, and we’d never used immersive technology like this before.”

Speaking of memories 

“The place is so visceral, you really feel it,” says Sam Doust, Group Director of Creative Services. “The aesthetics we explored are all about vérité. It’s about listening to the people who were there, the experiences they had, and carefully building storytelling around that.”  

And listen we did. To obtain first-hand accounts of these experiences we formally interviewed nine former prisoners, including women and First Nations inmates. We also spoke to retired prison officers and administrators, along with Pentridge’s former chaplain and a lawyer. 

Two men sit in a room, lit from above by an orange lamp shade, a window with curtains open behind them, and a microphone stand between them.
Sam Doust, Group Director of Creative Services, interviews former inmate John Killick.

The voices of these individuals can be heard as part of the tour’s immersive audio experiences—following an introduction by a National Trust tour guide, visitors are given an audio device that allows them to explore the prison at a pace and in a sequence of their own choosing. “You move into a cell and the cell starts talking to you, but you can then go out into the hallway and the story continues with you, because you may only want to be in that cell for a moment,” continues Sam. “It’s unintrusive and clever technology that supports your agency in terms of the way you want to move around the prison.”

Dan Parkinson, Creative Technologist, describes the experience. “It almost feels like they're in the room with you, or that you’re getting into their head a little bit. I find that it's an incredible way to connect with these people and those stories.”

“This collaboration with Art Processors really speaks to the sort of experience we’re trying to put out there,” explains Brook Powell, Executive Manager of Brand & Marketing at the National Trust, who also provides a compelling perspective on this creative intersection.

“In many ways, the National Trust has been doing immersive experiences since it was established—you can walk into Mulberry Hill and be astonished to stand at the table where Joan Lindsay wrote Picnic at Hanging Rock,” says Brook. “That sort of experience we have been witness to, but until now we’ve never had the technology overlaid in the way Art Processors has the ability to do.”   

Aside from location-aware audio, our interpretation of Pentridge also demonstrates our capabilities in exhibition design and creative technology, with some cells featuring set-dressing, artefact displays, and visual projections. “Just being in Pentridge itself is an experience,” says Monica Zetlin, Project Manager, who has perhaps spent the most time onsite among the bluestone. “But on top of that we’ve layered all this immersive content, just to shift visitors’ perceptions. I’m also appreciating that you can do something creative with historical sites—you can reinvent them while still respecting their heritage.”

Exhibition Designer Vanda Nemeth discusses set design with Lead Creative Technologist Julien de-Sainte-Croix.
Exhibition Designer Vanda Nemeth discusses set design with Lead Creative Technologist Julien de-Sainte-Croix.

Unearthing a dark past

It is inescapable, however, that Pentridge Prison represents a history of state-sanctioned inhumanity for many of the former inmates we interviewed for this project. When considering these stories represent only a fragment of the violence that occurred within the prison’s walls, the extent of its brutality becomes unfathomable. Names become numbers, stories become statistics. 

How is it possible to present these difficult stories of ‘dark history’ with tact and sincerity? Where do you draw the line on what material to include? By giving former inmates the spotlight as part of this project, are we glamorising criminal activity? 

These sorts of questions were front of mind for Kate Chmiel, Senior Content Developer. “We’re putting aside any sensationalism or dwelling in the sordid, and seeing each of the people involved as humans who've made decisions in difficult circumstances,” she says, reflecting on where this experience departs from the ‘true crime’ genre of podcasts and TV shows of late. “These people had made poor decisions, but parts of their lives were often completely out of control. We’re trying to understand the person behind the story, rather than the crime or what might be considered titillating.”

Introductions to former prisoners and other interviewees were facilitated by Pentridge Voices, a volunteer community group dedicated to recording oral and written history of the prison. Through their ongoing work, they have built an extensive network of people who are prepared to share their stories. 

“We spoke to prisoners who talked about their crimes and about aspects of their lives in prison—and leading up to prison—that are quite complex and often harrowing,” says Kate. “And we had a duty of care to visitors as well, trying to stay focused on important stories to share and considering what might cause fresh trauma. We’ve tried to walk that line of being genuine but not sanitising by any means.”

“There were some truly horrible stories that we heard, people speaking of awful things they'd done and awful things that happened to them,” continues Kate. “Sometimes there were factors of their upbringing, or their cultural background, or the Stolen Generations. And at some point, a story becomes so complex it demands the kind of space that we weren't able to provide within a relatively short experience.”

Uncle Jack Charles, an actor, musician, potter, Koori elder and former Pentridge Prison inmate, lent his voice to Pentridge Prison Tours.
It was an extraordinary privilege to work with former inmate Uncle Jack Charles, who sadly passed away a few months before the completion of the project. With the permission of his family, we are grateful to have his voice featured in the audio narration of the experience. Kate Chmiel, Senior Content Developer, pictured in the background.

No one truth

For every person willing to share their past, there are many more who are reluctant to do so. Brook acknowledges this uncomfortable fact. “All the stories told—as brutal as they are—are told by people who have the capacity to tell their story. There are countless others so broken by the system they can’t articulate their story, or wouldn’t know how to come to that place. It’s something to be mindful of.”

Regardless of how many people we interviewed, though, there was one certainty we quickly came to understand. “The adage is that there’s no one truth about Pentridge,” says Monica, “and we tried to be as objective and as transparent about that as possible.” 

Kate adds, “We had people on different sides talking about the same thing, and their accounts are wildly different, there’s a lot of contradiction. Each one says the other side isn’t telling the truth.”

When criminals are separated from society, regardless of the nature of their circumstances and offence, it places fewer demands on our emotions and intellect to simply regard them as a homogenous and deplorable mass. But for whatever opinions we hold about sentencing, we must also acknowledge that most inmates will eventually be released into the community. Encountering these stories at Pentridge Prison forces us to confront some difficult questions on what we seek to accomplish through incarceration.

“I’m hoping people will think about the bigger question of why prisons exist, and how we choose to treat people who have transgressed what we consider to be legal or condoned behaviour,” reflects Kate. “Prisons are closed-off spaces and most of us are unaware of the conditions inside, so it’s very easy to not think about the people within them.” 

“I’d like visitors to leave the tour having been touched by the complexity of this place, and being capable of understanding the modern redevelopment of the site within the context of its difficult past,” Sam explains, as he considers the disparity between the past and present. “To take all that and juxtapose with what’s there now—a built environment for a modern, peaceful, daily life.”

Acknowledgement of Country

In the spirit of reconciliation, we acknowledge the many Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and honour Elders past, present and emerging. We respect their deep, enduring connection to their lands, waterways and surrounding clan groups since time immemorial. We cherish the richness of First Nations Peoples’ artistic and cultural expressions.