Museum of Brisbane

The life of an object


A favourite topic for museum curators and collections managers is the ‘life’ of an object, or the ‘stories’ contained within an object. The objects in Life in Irons: Brisbane’s Convict Stories have certainly had an interesting life, created when Brisbane was home to the Moreton Bay Penal Colony from 1825 – 1839.

Life in Irons features the original maps, plan and registers from the Penal Colony. There’s something special about being in the presence of the originals. Yes, you can view these documents online, but there’s a reason over 8 million people visit the Louvre each year to see the Mona Lisa. To be in her presence is an experience. In the same vein, these documents have an aura about them. You can almost sense their history.

Imagine the lonely officer in his thick, woollen redcoat (buttoned to the neck in the Brisbane summer), plagued by flies, smelling of sweat and mud, listening to the sounds of the leg irons as convicts toil while building the new Commissariat Store nearby. He leans over the Chronological Register of Convicts at Moreton Bay, a large, leather-bound book, and enters the last shipment of arrivals: their names, their crimes, their sentences. He dips his quill into the iron gall ink, writes the names in well-practiced cursive, while trying not to drip the precious ink onto the scarce and valuable paper.

The history contained within these documents can be confronting: convicts sentenced to 7 years hard labour for stealing a handkerchief; convicts given 100, 200, 300 lashes for attempted escape, assault or murder. For the Aboriginal people, on whose land the colony was built, its presence signified the beginning of ongoing battles and persecution where they were forcibly removed from their custodial lands.

These precious documents are a direct link to our past. They are proof of what happened, right here, 190 years ago.

Madeleine Johns