In this place – building stories of the Destitute Asylum site

The buildings that now house the Migration Museum were once part of Adelaide’s Destitute Asylum. This site, which had been Kaurna land for millennia, was occupied by Europeans from the late 1830s. A new exhibition has just opened which tells the story of the site over 180 years, from the early Sapper and Miners (1839-1845), the Native School Establishment (1845-1851), through the use as a Destitute Asylum (1850s to 1918), and later usage by the SA Government Department of Chemistry (1920 – 1978). In June this year we officially opened a new display on the history of the site.

Image: room with open doors and architectural drawing on floor

A team of three curators undertook months of archival research in developing the exhibition, as well as genealogical research and consultation with people whose ancestors had attended the Native School or come through the Destitute Asylum, and with people who worked here at the Department of Chemistry. The exhibition makes connections between the use of this site as a place for the colonial ‘civilising’ of the Kaurna people, for the welfare and control of poor South Australians, the evolution of a state welfare system during the Destitute Asylum days, and the developing focus on the legislation of and science behind public health in the Chemistry Department era.

Few objects are available to tell the stories of these three periods of usage. While contemporary illustrations by Cawthorne and Gill give us an idea of what the Native School Establishment looked like there are no extant objects from it. While the current museum site has buildings from the 1850s, it is only a sixth of the Destitute Asylum at its peak in the 1880s, with many of the buildings demolished in the 1930s and 1960s to make room for other institutions in the area. A few objects were recovered in archaeological digs in the 1980s, and a lot of paper material survives at State Records, but most personal effects have been lost. Only a few objects remain from the decades of use by the Department of Chemistry.

Image: display case with boots, spoon and ceramic fragments on show

Image: wall with chemistry sign and equation


So the challenge for this exhibition was to present a vast story using minimal objects, where the building was essentially an object itself, and where the bulk of the exhibition information came from paper records. With the assistance of Mulloway Studios, our designer, we decided to use the fabric of the building to tell some of the story, through the use of colour, cutaways (to expose the original ceiling), stencils, window graphics, and wall panels.  An interactive that projected onto a wall gave us an arena to show maps of the site from different decades, and to see photos of the now-demolished buildings, as well as compare years and explore the growth, and then contraction, of the huge site.

Image: row of touch screen interactives

We used high definition 21.5 inch  touch screens to show the breadth of source and secondary material in a way that is accessible to a broad audience. To tell the Asylum story in an engaging way we developed four interactives, each focused on a particular family, whose lives had been affected by the Destitute Asylum between 1855 and 1905. We wanted to show the complex system that evolved from this site, so included parents and children who moved through the Asylum, who were boarded out (fostered) through the Destitute Board and later the State Children’s Council, who were born, or died in one of the care institutions, attended the Industrial School or Reformatories, or received Board relief. The interactives were designed to give visitors a layered experience, with simple attraction screens that offered a short summary of each family story. For those interested in more detail, they could read the full story, with active links through to primary source documents, photographs, letters and more. The touch screen technology meant that visitors could zoom in on the documents and photos to see incredible detail, which is useful for visitors with limited vision. To further increase accessibility we recorded the family stories and provided headphones. We used local web design company Digital Barn to develop the interactives.

To make the gallery more interactive we developed a Game of Life that visitors can play, which communicates the precarity of life in the early colony. Children in particular have enjoyed playing, and learning how families’ fortunes could change ‘at the roll of the dice’, and how the developing welfare system tried (but often failed) to protect and provide for people, with the best intentions.

Image: large checkered board game with images in squares

Our research also uncovered the names and birthdates of the 1678 babies born at the Destitute Asylum between 1880 and 1909. We wanted to acknowledge and remember these children, so developed a memorial artwork which hangs from the gallery ceiling. The full name and birthdate of each child hangs on a tag, with the stillborn children’s tags having a black edge. Visitors can blow on the tags to make them move, a way of interacting with children from long ago!

Image: three women standing together in museum gallery

Visitor Lisa (centre), whose family member is featured in the gallery, came from Cairns for the launch, June 2016. The babies’ names hang overhead.

We are very grateful to all the stakeholders, families and research institutions which assisted us with the gallery the gallery. In particular, State Records, Families SA and the State Library helped us so much, giving us full access to documentation, and permission to tell personal stories. It really felt that some of the people of the Destitute Asylum tugged at our sleeves and asked for their stories to be told, and we came to feel close to many of them. It was important to us that their untold stories were heard, and in particular to recognise the stillborn babies, who were never officially named.




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