Unlocking old jail's potential

Anyone for a visit? Dunedin Prison forms part of the city's heritage precinct. Photo by Gerard O...
Anyone for a visit? Dunedin Prison forms part of the city's heritage precinct. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.
Stewart Harvey argues that the Dunedin Prison is too precious to be simply turned into another backpackers or restaurant.

Instead, he suggests, it could become a heritage tourist attraction.

If the Corrections Department decides that the prison is surplus then Dunedin has a unique opportunity to inherit a historic building and capitalise on all the historic stories which it has to tell.

There are many workers and inmates still living who have a raft of fascinating stories to tell about life in the jail.

These stories should be captured now and used to form the nucleus of a prison tour.

The people and the stories are as important as the building in the historic context.

In Melbourne the original prison is fully utilised and staffed as a very popular tourist attraction.

I see no reason why the Dunedin Prison should not become an equally popular attraction, able to stand on its own feet economically.

Features in the experience could include:

Theatrical performances from its history; displays of artefacts from the early jail days; guided tours with stories of prisoners; ghost tours; overnight stays; interpretation panels; shop and outdoor courtyard cafe; functions and, from time to time, themed displays, e.g. "demolished houses of Dunedin".

The prison is ideally situated as an integral part of Dunedin's heritage precinct.

With the courthouse next door there is potential for related tours and courtroom dramas for students.

In his book Dunedin Gaol Bill Martin outlines the history of the present building.

It was designed in 1892 by government architect J. J. Campbell, who based it on the old Scotland Yard building in London.

Work began in December 1894 and the building was finished in late 1895.

It soon held 310 male and 86 female prisoners.

Mr Martin's book contains many fascinating anecdotes from Dunedin's historic past including executions.

It would be a tragedy to see it sold to a developer and turned into another backpackers or restaurant.

It has far too many stories to tell.

Many old jails are retained and conserved and become great success stories in Australia.

The National Trust of Australia runs the Old Melbourne Gaol Crime and Justice Experience - which won the2009 Heritage and Cultural Tourism Award.

The Old Melbourne Gaol has been a Melbourne tourism landmark for over 30 years, run by the trust, a non-profit, community-funded organisation.

It is third in popularity in the top 10 Melbourne tourist attractions.

In Sydney, the old Convict Barracks form another great popular and educational historical attraction, exhibiting and interpreting Sydney's historic convict past, as does the Adelaide Gaol.

Built 1841, it has been conserved in its original form, and opened to the tourist public in May 1988.

Staffed by volunteers, this jail has become very popular with tourists.

The Fremantle Prison, in Western Australia, has undergone conservation and restoration, and has a mission to conserve, interpret and promote the history, culture and use of the Fremantle Prison Precinct to standards that acknowledge the precinct's exceptional cultural heritage values.

The same could apply to Dunedin's prison and be adopted by the city.

What is now required is that an operating trust be formed, the funds raised to purchase the building, a statement of cultural significance be prepared along with a business plan and a restoration plan.

• Stewart Harvey belongs to the Historic Cemeteries Conservation Trust of New Zealand.


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