11 September 2016

Weddings, Parties, Anything… At Boggo Road, It’s All Been Done Before

I was recently having a discussion about the Boggo Road heritage prison, specifically about what kind of events could be held there, and which ones already have. It got me thinking about the decade up to 2005, when the volunteers of the Boggo Road Gaol Museum established guided tours, created exhibitions, and really built the place up as a tourist attraction.

They had started that work back in the early-to-mid-1990s, following the closure of the last male prison at Boggo Road in 1992. The museum was eventually closed to the public in December 2005 when construction work commenced on the neighbouring redevelopments, including the Ecoscience Precinct, although members of the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society continued their maintenance work there until mid-2006.

I was a volunteer (and eventually the curator) there from 2001, and now realise that just about every type of event that could be held there already had been held there under not-for-profit management by 2005. These included:
  • Plays: Shakespeare and other productions were held inside the cellblock areas from the 1990s on.
  • Art exhibitions: The cellblocks and other original prison rooms were used for various art exhibitions, including Aboriginal material.
  • Film screenings: There were fundraising and school production screening nights held in the 'Circle' area in front of the cellblocks.
  • Guided Tours: We developed a highly successful school tours programme, sometimes taking up to 7 or 8 groups a day through Boggo Road by 2005.
  • Museum exhibitions: The volunteers designed and installed several successful artefact exhibitions in various spaces around the prison.
  • Team building workshops: Businesses would hire out the prison for a day or two to run team-building exercises for their staff.
  • Writers festival: The prison was sometimes used for Brisbane Writers Festival events, such as discussion panels.
  • Parties: On average, the prison was hired for over 100 parties per year - workplaces, birthdays, engagements, etc. 
  • TV and movie filming: TV shows such as 'Totally Wild' would use the prison to record or broadcast shows. Larger productions such as 'Inspector Gadget' also took over the prison for filming.
  • Markets: The front and inside of the prison was used for Sunday morning markets back in 2001-02.
  • Fashion shows: The volunteers occasionally organised fundraising fashion shows inside the prison.
  • Music rehearsals: Community bands used rooms inside the prison for weeknight rehearsals. The 'Circle' area in front of the cellblocks was also used for live music performances.
  • Youth intervention tours: Former officers would sometimes take groups of 'at-risk' youth through the prison to drive home to them the realities of prison life. By all accounts these were R-rated and highly effective wake-up calls.
  • Charity events: Successful charity 'bookfest' weekends and 'breakout' events were held in the cellblocks.
  • Open days: The volunteers organised hugely successful 'open days' such as the 2003 Centenary Day for No.2 Division, which was attended by thousands.
  • Weddings: Several weddings per year were held inside the prison.
  • School Arts festivals: Schools were allowed free use of the premises to host their Arts events.
  • Youth sleepovers: Out-of-town schools and Scout groups would use the prison for supervised sleepovers (not in the cellblocks).
There are no doubt some others that I have forgotten here. There really was such a wide range of activity there.

Apart from these volunteer-organised events, there were a few other activities held inside the prison by small businesses, such as the 'cellblock sleepovers' that unfortunately resulted in serious vandalism of the cells, with customers being left to daub graffiti all over the cell walls, and drink, smoke and burn candles in the cells overnight. These were later prohibited by the Queensland Government, as were the highly disrespectful 'ghost hunts' in which people were charged a lot of money to use 'ghostometers' to 'find' the ghosts of people who had died in custody. Of course there were also the standard olde prison ghost tours.

As the prison was run as a not-for-profit operation, the success of the volunteer-run activities enabled the museum managers to donate tens of thousands of dollars to various charities such as Drug Arm.

Of course, all the above really puts Campbell Newman's backroom deal with a small business to freeze the volunteers out of the 2012 interim opening of the prison into shameful context.

While the volunteer achievements at Boggo Road were considerable, it has to be remembered that this was all done on five-day weeks and uncertain tenure. And apart from manager John Banks putting in 50/60 -hour weeks, we never really tried that hard. After all - and I guess that this is the main point here - Boggo Road is a place that sells itself. You don't need much marketing to get people in there, Open it, and they will come, because people are primarily attracted by the buildings and the internal spaces themselves, regardless of what is going on within those walls.

But... that was then. The days of the old not-for-profit Boggo Road Gaol Museum have passed, and it is clear that when the prison is properly reopened in the future - hopefully with a major heritage and arts component - new levels of excellence and professionalism are required to transform the place into a commercially successful creative and hospitality venue.

This is part of the thinking behind the Boggo Arts and Heritage Alliance project - that Boggo Road needs to be opened up to a wider variety of ways of looking at the prison and its history, with more voices telling more stories in more formats. Allowing creative communities to apply quality ideas to using that space.

So while I do have some of my own ideas for all-new interpretive activities inside Boggo Road for the future, there really isn't anything that has been done at Boggo in recent years that hasn't all been done there before. The challenge will be to do it better and finally realise the full creative and commercial potential of the heritage prison.

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