Museum of Brisbane

Brisbane’s convict past unshackled

Written by Phil Brown, Brisbane News

HARD LABOUR: A convict shirt in the Life in Irons exhibition at Museum of Brisbane.


You may get the urge to ask them to turn the lights up a bit when browsing the Museum of Brisbane’s latest exhibition.

It’s not just mood lighting though — it’s dim for a reason.

Some of the incredible printed material in the exhibition, Life in Irons: Brisbane’s Convict Stories, are foundation documents of our city, dating back to when Brisbane was a penal settlement.

They are delicate and have to be preserved and kept away from light.

As Museum of Brisbane chairman Sallyanne Atkinson points out, this documentation is rare and wonderful.

HOMELAND: A map of indigenous camps that existed on the land where Brisbane now sits.


Life in Irons is particularly exciting due to our partnership with Queensland State Archives,” Sallyanne says.

“The exhibition features precious, rarely seen, original documents from the settlement, which are part of the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register.”

Five registers that detail rations and harvests, illnesses and death, employment and transgressions are included, and there are original architectural plans and maps — many prepared by convict George Brown — that show the footprint of the penal settlement prior to the opening of Brisbane Town as a free settlement in 1842. There is also a Book of Trials on show that logs the crimes and punishments meted out within the settlement.

This stuff is our version of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and it is wonderful to see these amazing artefacts, even if you have to peer through the gloom to do so.

STARK LIFE: Sketch of the convict barracks in Brisbane 1832.


This exhibition is important because it shows us our origins as a city and, importantly, reflects on the fact that there were, of course, people already living here when the penal settlement was established in 1824. A fascinating map shows where local Aborigines camped.

This aspect is important in the exhibition, according to museum director Renai Grace, who says artist Danie Mellor has also created new works that “explore the impacts of colonisation by highlighting the lush subtropical landscape surrounding the settlement, in his signature style”.

“Danie’s works are complemented by a map of Aboriginal campsites in Moreton Bay, researched by historian Ray Kerkhove, which strikingly illustrates how the penal settlement sat ‘like an island in Aboriginal lands’.

“Working closely with historians (particularly Jennifer Harrison, an expert on our convict era), actors and graduates from the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts, we have also recorded 23 personal accounts of life in the penal colony from individuals as varied as commandants, convicts, officers, a military wife, a child and Aboriginal leaders,” Renai says.

Brisbane-based sound artist Lawrence English has created a soundscape that conjures the heat, isolation, danger and loneliness of the time.

QUICK MARCH: A Royal Marine jacket on display at Museum of Brisbane.


The exhibition is also interactive. Pick up a character card when you walk in and follow that character’s life around the exhibition.

The penal settlement years were brutal. Convicts were sent here to suffer in isolation when we were just a remote outpost of New South Wales.

During the life of the exhibition, there is a busy public program, which you can learn about on the museum’s website. A special treat will be some performances by Brisbane chamber orchestra Camerata, artists-in-residence during the exhibition. They will compose then perform a new work in situ — one that responds to the objects (including a military uniform and a convict’s shirt) and to the stories being told.

The Camerata is rather popular so I’d get in quickly to secure a place at one of their performances.

LIFE IN IRONS: BRISBANE’S CONVICT STORIES, until Oct. 28, Museum of Brisbane, Brisbane City Hall.