The heritage of Pentridge: Preservation through set design and technology

A prison cell furnished with a shelf containing books, toilet paper and container, as well as a toilet, socks hanging on a line, a chess board on a wooden desk, and a bed.

Main content

Pentridge Prison is anything but a blank canvas. Despite the extensive urban renewal across the former prison site, the remaining cell blocks retain a deeply foreboding energy; the cumulative legacy of 150 years of isolation, violence, and harsh penal practices upon those confined by its bars and shackles. 

Partnering with the National Trust of Australia (Victoria), we led the creative development of a series of new immersive visitor experiences in the prison’s B Division and H Division. Working with such a distinctive and historically charged site presented unique challenges and opportunities for us.

Merging a range of disciplines within Art Processors to present a compelling and often troubling history of Pentridge and the land upon which it sits, we hear from the very people who spent their days among its bluestone walls. This experience takes visitors inside authentically set-dressed cells showcasing life-size projections, historic artifacts, and photographs. 

Recreating a hard reality

“The first thing we discovered when we visited the site was that it has such a strong sense of place. The building already does so much,” says Vanda Nemeth, Associate Exhibition Designer. “Just being in there already does what you need it to do,” she continues, describing the uneasy atmosphere within the prison walls. “Our design approach was to utilize the strength of that, and to use what was already there to keep that feeling. We didn't want it to feel like it was a new polished thing because that's not what it is, and that's not the history of the site.”

A bleakly austere prison cell furnished with a wooden table, straw mat and blanket.

Many of the cells have been set-dressed to reflect specific eras of Pentridge. A bleakly austere cell in B Division represents the ‘separate and silent’ penal system of the 19th century. Stripped back to reveal the raw bluestone walls, it features a simulated day-and-night cycle from the small window to demonstrate the deprivation and gloominess of these conditions. 

Vanda explains that the aim was to make the cells as historically accurate as possible. “We did lots of research on the different phases of the prison—when parts were built, renovated and demolished, what the environment was like, and how it felt to be there,” she explains.

Across the hallway is another cell representing the living conditions from roughly the 1970s onwards, almost homely in its furnishings with books, a desk fan, radio, chess set, and even a sheepskin rug—all indicative of a long-term prisoner trading and spending their resources.

A prison cell furnished with a shelf containing books, toilet paper and container, as well as a toilet, socks hanging on a line, a chess board on a wooden desk, and a bed.

“We used reference images from the eras we were wanting to represent,” continues Vanda, “and we were lucky to have access to a huge library of photos from the 1980s of both the prisoners and the spaces they lived in, so we tried to replicate those as much as we could. We also spoke to former inmates who gave us a lot of insight into what was used, how extra goods like furniture and books were obtained, and the creative ways they made use of simple items.”

“The set dressing items are mostly things we’ve purchased, but are all representative of the time period we’re illustrating,” says Monica Zetlin, Project Manager, who mentions that many of these items were found in op shops, and some others were salvaged from piles destined for landfill. Certain cells also feature object showcases relevant to their narrative theme, such as contraband and makeshift weapons. Many of these were donated from collections, with some of them being found at Pentridge following its closure.

Seamless audio from cell to cell

Our immersive audio and audio synchronisation technologies link visitors to the stories behind the walls of Pentridge, told by those who spent their days within the prison. Within B Division and H Division, visitors are handed an in-house device following an introduction from a National Trust guide. 

Once the headphones are on, there’s no further need to interact with the device—as soon as you walk into a cell, the device plays a narrative chapter corresponding to the theme of that space, placing the visitor directly into the minds of those who spent time there. “Delivering the content this way is perfect, it’s like a cinematic experience in your head,” says Monica.

A man wearing a grey jumper and camel-coloured pants sits on a bed and wears headphones, looking up at wall in a prison cell.

“We were initially thinking of having speakers in all of the cells, where you would walk in and it triggers a soundbite of an inmate telling their story about Pentridge,” recalls Dan Parkinson, Creative Technologist. “But of course, the prison is made of entirely hard surfaces and the cells are obviously small as well, so the acoustics in there would have been terrible for speakers.”

Instead, our IAE technology identifies when a device has entered a designated area, as Dan explains. “When you carry the mobile device around, it measures the signal strength to nearby Bluetooth beacons so it can triangulate your position in the prison, and then feeds content related to your location.” 

Similar to set design, the nature of the building itself informed much of the technical decision-making. “Pentridge is mostly made of bluestone, and we discovered that bluestone is really good at blocking Bluetooth signals,” continues Dan, “which is excellent because you can be certain that someone is in the correct room where you’ve detected them, without getting signal bleed from other rooms.”

“We also realized that parts of the structure are made of brick, which has a completely different Bluetooth permeability, so that was definitely challenging. Then there's the fact that the cells are tiny—by design, they're supposed to confine someone's existence to a very small box.” The limited space within cells is an unwelcoming atmosphere for some people, but the audio experience continues to play when you step back into the corridor, allowing visitors to complete the narrative chapter outside the cell if they wish. 

A young woman wearing headphones looks at a wall covered in newspaper cut-outs and black and white pictures of men.

Bluestone projections

A fundamental theme in many of our projects focused on site-specific storytelling can perhaps be summarized by the phrase, ‘If these walls could talk’—and then, quite literally, giving them a voice. The bluestone of Pentridge, quarried from the surrounding earth by the very prisoners who would be confined by it, has witnessed more than we can possibly know. One of the ways we’ve incorporated the bluestone as a storyteller in our experience design is through its use as a projection surface. 

Visitors will encounter the first bluestone projection in the former Warders’ Residence where tickets are purchased, and can view the display while waiting for tours to begin. “It tells a chronology of Pentridge in a way, but there’s no specific narrative to it,” says Edward Blake, Design Director. “It’s much more ephemeral, like a rich visual history of the site.”

Two of the cells within the tours also feature projections directly on the walls, bringing visitors face-to-face with former inmates Ray Mooney and John Killick. With the projections playing on a loop, the devices use our audio-visual synchronization technology to seamlessly play the spoken dialogue in sync with the visuals as you walk into the cell. However, the task of projecting images onto bare bluestone was never destined to be straightforward.

A man wearing a jumper, pants and sneakers is projected onto a wall in a prison cell next to a toilet, together with the words 'And the first time he was down there...'

“It’s an atrocious surface to use as a projection substrate!” laughs Dan. “It’s quite challenging to work with. The stones are quite rough-cut, they’re not a flat surface. On top of that, the bluestone and the mortar have completely different reflective qualities.”

“So, we had to get around that in two ways,” continues Dan. “Firstly, we used very bright projectors, just to make the images really pop off the wall. Secondly, we had to carefully choose the motion graphic content so that it worked well with the wall texture. Sam [Doust] has done a great job in selecting this material. We’ve gone with mostly high-contrast monochrome visuals, which leans into many of the cut-out stencil motifs we’ve used throughout the rest of the experience, and I think it works really well.”

Pictures, permissions, and good faith

These cut-out graphics mentioned by Dan are a prominent feature of many cells, incorporating historical documents such as news reports, photos, and sketches. To avoid pixelation when scaling up these images we instead used a halftone printing process, harking back to the visual aesthetic of photographs in old newspapers, and a more fitting choice to represent the history of Pentridge.

A woman wearing a black hat and high visibility vest smoothes cut-out images onto on wall, a small, high window behind her.

In discerning our limitations with the use of historical records, Edward went to extraordinary lengths to confirm what would be permissible for display. “Anything pre-dating 1955 is in the public domain—police reports, mugshots, illustrations, so on—and we didn’t have to chase down sources,” he says. 

“But the story we want to tell is also contemporary, living history. It would’ve been a very different story if everything was before 1955. So we worked really hard to gain permissions from groups like the Retired Prison Officers Association, the State Library of Victoria, various newspapers, and many people through the National Trust.”

However, the sources for many images in the decades following 1955 are still exceptionally challenging to track down, particularly when permissions were held by organizations or publications that may no longer exist. 

“It’s worth mentioning there’s a term called ‘in good faith,’” says Edward. “It basically means we’ve done all the legwork we can to obtain permission to use something, but were unable to find who can grant this permission.” He recounts the process of applying this ‘good faith’ practice to one specific cell in H Division. This cell features 39 mugshots of former H Division inmates, representing the 39 cells of the wing, who stare out at the visitor as they listen to a former prison officer discuss his time at Pentridge. 

“We wanted to give a face to this presence, but you can imagine that finding mugshots for 39 people who were known to have spent significant time in H Division is no small feat. I had to dig through logs for basically a whole week, and had a list of about 700 names to go through, just to find out if these people are alive,” explains Edward. 

It turns out that for many of these prisoners, their images aren’t able to be found anywhere. “So, working in best-practice good faith, we had to make sure that the people represented on this cell wall are either no longer living or have given us permission, so there are no claims that anyone has been defamed.” 

An end to end experience

Vanda speaks of a certain gratification in uniting our collective talents and work streams. “There were a lot of moving parts here, and every single part of Art Processors had to come together to make this work.”

Edward shares a similar thought. “Having all those different disciplines talking on a daily basis means they're all orchestrated in a smooth and coherent way, and every piece is thinking about and considering the other,” he says. 

“Like the wall art and the audio—when you walk into a cell, what you see complements what you hear. It’s that idea of being able to harmonize with each other rather than having to wedge a square peg into a round hole.”e

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.