Life in Irons: Brisbane’s Convict Stories

MoB Life in Irons Danie MellorProviding a vivid insight into daily existence in the Moreton Bay penal colony from 1824 – 1839, the Museum of Brisbane presents Life in Irons: Brisbane’s Convict Stories, on display from 18 May 2018.

Moreton Bay penal colony was established by the British Government to “… reinstate transportation as an object of real terror to all classes of society”. It succeeded. Using original documents, new research and personal accounts, the exhibition will be brought to life with immersive technologies that literally gives a voice and face to the past.

Chairman Sallyanne Atkinson AO said Museum of Brisbane is the city’s storyteller and revealing our convict history deepens understanding of our modern city. “From place names to a lingering sense of isolation, Brisbane’s convict history shapes our city’s contemporary culture,” said Mrs Atkinson.

Life in Irons is particularly exciting as, due to our partnership with Queensland State Archives, it features precious, rarely-seen, original documents from the settlement that are part of the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register.”

Historical objects in the exhibition include convict and regimental uniforms, and official documents from Queensland State Archives comprising: five registers from 1824 – 1842 that detail rations and harvests, illnesses and death, employment and transgressions.

Also on display are original architectural plans and maps, many prepared by convict George Browne, that show the footprint of the penal settlement prior to the opening of Brisbane Town as a free settlement in 1842; and the Book of Trials which logs the crimes and punishments meted out within the settlement.

Director Renai Grace said Life in Irons conveys the brutality and isolation of life for the 3,000 men and women imprisoned here from Moreton Bay’s founding in 1824 to the penal colony’s closure in 1839 by complementing the official documents and historical objects with artwork commissions and performance.

“This vibrant collection of original artefacts, contemporary art, performance, new research, personal stories and technology will give every visitor an enriched sense of our past and a greater appreciation for the enduring legacy of our convict stories,” says Grace.

The Museum of Brisbane has commissioned international sound artist, Brisbane-based Lawrence English, to create a new soundscape that will resonate throughout the exhibition space conjuring up the heat, isolation, danger and loneliness of the settlement.

While acclaimed Queensland artist Danie Mellor has also created new works for the exhibition that explore the impacts of colonisation by highlighting a lush subtropical environment that recalls the landscape surrounding the settlement in his signature style. The works reflect on his own Aboriginal and European heritage and ponder differing cultural approaches to Country.

“His work delivers us vignette-style glimpses of lush idyllic subtropical landscapes. But all is not well,” says Grace. “Shadows of colonisers and the colonised haunt these landscapes. This distancing and visual taming of the landscape sits in distinct contrast with Indigenous Australian perceptions of the land.”

“The familiar blue and white colour scheme and sepia tones draw on European ceramic and photographic traditions, employing the lens of colonisation to neatly frame the natural environment.”

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’, while Queensland chamber orchestra, Camerata, will compose and then perform a new work in situ that will respond to the objects and stories of Life in Irons.

Life in Irons: Brisbane’s Convict Stories
Museum of Brisbane – City Hall, King George Square, Brisbane
Exhibition: 18 May – 28 October 2018
Free admission

For more information, visit: for details.

Image: Danie Mellor, Natura Pacifica (I, V, and III) 2016. (Installation View). Lambda print on metallic photographic paper. Artworks courtesy the artist and Jan Murphy Gallery, Brisbane.