Opinion: Bring the hidden history of Hay Gaol out of the shadows

Opinion: Bring the hidden history of Hay Gaol out of the shadows
Girls working in the garden, watched over by officers, Hay Institution for Girls, 1965, courtesy of Community Services New South Wales, Human Services.
Friday 1 March 2019

Lecturer in the ANU Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies Dr Adele Chynoweth has long been concerned with issues of social justice and their intersection with museums. Her work highlighting the plight of a group of children who were incarcerated in the adult psychiatric facility Wolston Park Hospital contributed to the now-adults receiving financial redress from the Queensland Government. Here, Dr Chynoweth writes about the Hay Gaol Museum and its inadequate acknowledgement of its dark past.

As part of the Master of Museum and Heritage Studies, offered by the Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies, students have the opportunity to visit heritage sites. Last year, I organised a tour to the outback NSW town of Hay, where we visited the Hay Gaol Museum. Travelling with us was a former inmate of the Hay Institute for Girls who led the tour of the site from her perspective. At her request, I also organised a meeting between her and the Chair of the Hay Gaol Committee so that she could air her grievances about the Museum’s dominant aesthetic of storage display, related to local settler history. How might the Hay Gaol Museum be simply refurbished to tell the site’s more difficult truth and support those survivors who lives were irrevocably changed? The Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies acknowledges the movement throughout the global museum and heritage sector led by those who choose to work for the social good. As part of this activist practice, I offer my summary of the problems associated with tourism informed solely by commodified-led practice and the effects on Hay Gaol survivors.

Built in 1879, Hay Gaol possesses a heinous living resonance. The building is a silent echo of an infamous past that prompted protests and damning media attention in the 1970s. Residents of the town in the NSW Riverina attempted to report the screams of those held in the institution. More recently, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse again highlighted the suffering. Yet, for visitors to the site, which is now the Hay Gaol Museum, established in 1976, there are mere tokenist acknowledgements of this dark chapter. A visitor may well assume that there is a strong reluctance to recognise the crimes committed by staff within the walls and those far away who signed-off on policies that betrayed the vulnerable. Is this a conscious refusal to acknowledge history? Whether it is or not, this part of Hay’s history, and indeed our national narrative, where human rights were violated, needs to be recognised.

The Museum’s displays

In 1961, the Gaol became the infamous Hay Institute for Girls, a maximum-security complex established as a response to the riots at the Parramatta Training School for Girls in Sydney approximately 700 kilometres away. Now the Hay Gaol Committee use this site as a museum to display represent the town’s settler history. Prison cells are cluttered with repetitive objects. Outside the cellblock is a large collection of farming equipment with several motor vehicles. All with very little historical interpretation as if the aesthetics of storage display are self-explanatory.

Currently, the only reference to the historical function of the Hay Gaol Museum is limited to a quotation from the 2004 Senate Inquiry on a quilt hanging in the entrance hall which also mentions of the site as a colonial gaol, maternity hospital, insane asylum, and prisoner of war camp. Former inmates of the Institute as part of their reunion in 2007 placed a small memorial plaque in the courtyard. There are also two cells in the main building, one displaying objects relating to prisoners-of-war and another set up as it was in the early 1970s as the Hay Institute for Girls, with an audio recording of the associated ABC Radio National programme available at the touch of a button. However, it is unlikely that any visitor would stand and listen to a one-hour broadcast in its entirety. Most telling are the accounts of those survivors of Australia’s institutionalised ‘care’ system for children, who on visiting the Museum, report feelings of profound hurt that the site’s former function is marginalised as relatively meaningless.

Hay and tourism

Tourism has become an important industry for the town of Hay and a local tourism plan advises that the Hay Gaol should focus on the representation of narratives of internment and not local artefacts that are irrelevant to the site’s history. This emphasis on relevant and inclusive narratives is also paralleled in the National Standards for Australian Museums and Galleries.

The town of Hay had a dedicated professional curator in residence but that role did little to shift the irrelevant clutter in the Museum. Much-needed change, then, need not be dependent on funding but, instead, by a commitment to site-specific story telling. This quest need not be an excuse to head down the path of superficial, dark tourism, exemplified by the current ghost tours on Sydney’s Cockatoo Island, too, a former site of incarceration of teenage girls. Nor should an obsession with tourism inform a singular guiding purpose for the Hay Gaol Museum. Many museums throughout the world think more broadly and extend their reach beyond educational benefit to work of social change.

The federal government positioned Hay as a site of internment during World War II and the NSW Child Welfare Department established the Hay Institute for Girls. Now, the Hay Gaol Committee could contextualise the carceral history of Hay and violations of human rights with an acknowledgement of the centralised policies of those in power hundreds of miles away. The Hay Gaol Museum has the potential to courageously and honestly speak to the site’s role in a national history of punitive welfarism and incarceration of: child convicts, prisoners of war, foreign nationals, the Stolen Generations, Care Leavers, Forgotten Australians, Child Migrants, adult migrants, and asylum seekers. But most importantly, an honest public history in the Hay Gaol must also be informed by a rigorous, respectful, committed and beneficial collaboration with and for survivors. This commitment is evident in the Dunera Museum at the Hay Railway Station, which exhibits the narratives of those who were incarcerated in the three internment camps during World War II. But such dedication stops at the gates of the Hay Gaol Museum.

Current developments by members of the Hay Gaol Committee indicate no intention to change its approach to the display that dates back to 1976. In 2018, a series of windmills were installed on site. It is not that Hay’s settler culture is unimportant but it is oppressive when its symbols are used to stifle the marginalised and the screams that echo through history.

This news story was originally published on the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences website.


Updated:  8 November 2019/Responsible Officer:  Head of Centre/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications