Highly Commended 2023

Pentridge Prison Tours

Art Processors / National Trust of Australia (Victoria)

The Pentridge Prison Tours brand hones in on the physical experience’s uniqueness and the importance of a cutting-edge experience digitally.

In collaboration with the National Trust of Australia (Victoria), Art Processors led the creative transformation of Pentridge Prison, delivering an immersive visitor experience that reveals unsettling truths from a brutal era in Australian history. Through a seamless integration of compelling storytelling, authentic set design, and state-of-the-art technology, the design solution engages visitors in a thought-provoking and confronting journey. It prompts contemplation on the nature of retributive justice in our society and confronts the intricate and unsettling history of Victoria's penal system. This immersive experience skilfully juxtaposes the stark history of Pentridge with the contemporary redevelopment of the surrounding precinct.

Design Brief:

The challenges were to create an immersive interpretation of Pentridge Prison that fully realises the National Trust's vision to preserve the true heritage of the site, set against the backdrop of a modern redevelopment project. The intended outcome was to provoke contemplation on transgression, retribution, and rehabilitation, aiming to offer a human perspective on Pentridge's history. To place the people of the prison at the centre of the experience and share voices that haven't been heard before, we needed to go beyond the well-known stories of high-profile inmates and instead reveal the day-to-day realities of life inside Pentridge. We also needed to carefully navigate ethical considerations, ensuring a balance between conveying confronting material with a duty of care towards visitors. Additionally, the project had to navigate challenges presented by the site's heritage status and respect the profound connection between the land and the First Nations people.

This project was developed by:

Design Process

Our process expertly integrated experiential design, location-aware audio, and creative technology to craft an immersive experience at Pentridge Prison. Through extensive research and nuanced storytelling, we exceeded the initial brief.

By utilising key areas within the prison, such as B Division, H Division, rock-breaking yards, and the former Warders' Residence, our design solution embraced the concept of "if these walls could talk." We incorporated authentic set-dressed cells, life-size projections, historical artefacts, and photographs to place the people who inhabited the prison at the heart of the experience. Location-aware audio journeys brought their untold stories to life, enabling visitors to confront the harsh realities of the site's history. The original Bluestone walls were cleverly integrated into the design, acting as storytellers with projected media directly displayed on their surface.

In collaboration with the National Trust, we expanded the project's scope beyond the 19th-century history covered in the existing Master Plan. This comprehensive narrative connected the prison's history from its early beginnings to its closure in 1997.

Extensive interviews were conducted with former inmates, prison officers, clerics, lawyers, and other individuals associated with the prison. These conversations, facilitated by Pentridge Voices, an organisation dedicated to preserving the prison's heritage, uncovered the complex nature of Pentridge's history. We approached the inclusion of events sensitively to avoid causing renewed trauma.

Acknowledging the site's location on Wurundjeri Land, we sought input from the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation regarding exhibition content and tour operations. First Nations Elders and representatives, including Uncle Bill Nicholson, Chris Austin, Les Griggs, and the late Uncle Jack Charles, contributed artworks and narrations, providing crucial context to the relationship between First Nations people and the penal system.

Exhaustive research and nuanced storytelling elevate the quality of the experience and demonstrate our commitment to historical accuracy and design integrity.

Design Excellence

The tours of Pentridge Prison are a vivid experience of contextual dissonance. The surrounding redevelopment is a contemporary built environment featuring an assortment of suburban conveniences—with the same earth and bluestone of these amenities being no less of a witness to the violence and cruelty of the prison’s history.

The former Warders' Residence serves as the introduction to the tours, housing multimedia exhibits and artefacts that provide a glimpse of what visitors will encounter. Guests can choose to embark on either "B Division: Pentridge Through Time" for a comprehensive journey through the site's history or "H Division: Unlocked" to confront the most appalling elements of this infamous wing. Alternatively, they can opt for both tours consecutively, each lasting 90 minutes.

Following an introduction from a National Trust guide, visitors are equipped with audio devices that deliver a location-aware and immersive eyes-up experience as they explore the prison. Each space delves into a specific theme, such as escapes, women in Pentridge, daily routines, and punishments. When visitors enter a cell, the device plays corresponding narration from individuals who lived through these experiences. Set-dressed cells authentically recreate the austere living conditions of the prison, while others feature video projections of inmates to accompany the narration. Object collections and carefully preserved cells provide a glimpse into the original conditions.

The integration of location-aware audio, multimedia exhibits, and historic artefacts into the bluestone walls exemplifies powerful storytelling through interpretive design and cinematic audio. The user experience is prioritised, providing an immersive journey with relevant narration and soundscapes. Safety measures, including trigger warnings and careful content curation, ensure visitor well-being.

Ultimately, this project sets a new benchmark for immersive, well-researched, and user-centric experiences to evoke emotional responses and foster a deeper understanding of the complexities of our shared history.

Design Innovation

The Pentridge Prison Tours exemplify design innovation by seamlessly blending historical architecture with cutting-edge technology to create a groundbreaking and emotionally-charged visitor experience. The integration of location-aware audio technology stands out as a key innovation, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the prison's history as they explore. By triangulating visitors' location through Bluetooth beacons and utilising the bluestone construction of the prison walls, the technology delivers precise cell-specific audio narrations while maintaining a barrier against signal bleed.

A standout feature is the bluestone sculpture embedded with bone-conducting technology, enabling visitors to activate sounds of the prison through touch, providing a unique and intimate sensory experience. Large-scale projections enhanced by four-channel atmospheric soundscapes are another innovative feature that immerses visitors in the prison's story while utilising the prison walls as a canvas. This approach sets a new benchmark for incorporating technology into heritage sites respectfully and meaningfully.

The historic Warders' Residence reveals layers of history through motion graphic projections on the original Bluestone walls, capturing key moments and faces that visitors will encounter throughout the Divisions.

Within B and H Divisions, the location-aware audio experience envelops visitors in the stories and voices of Pentridge, creating a truly immersive environment. The freedom to explore at one's own pace is enhanced by the rich and layered audio, dynamically updating as visitors move through the cells and central corridor. Detailed recreated cells and original wall art, crafted from historic images, further embed Pentridge's narrative into the prison's texture and surface.

H "Hell" Division presents projections and screens sharing the experiences of those who spent time within its walls. Meanwhile, the large-scale projection in the Warders' Residence, complemented by four-channel atmospheric soundscapes, immerses visitors in the heart of the story without obscuring or concealing the prison's original surfaces.

Design Impact

This project has realised the National Trust's vision to ensure the true heritage of Pentridge would not be forgotten or ignored. From a social perspective, the impact is profound. The immersive experience provokes a complexity of emotions and unresolved questions for those prepared to confront some of the darkest chapters of Pentridge Prison’s history, ultimately leading to a greater understanding of the impacts of incarceration on individuals, families, and communities.

For the environment, the project has taken a site that had a troubled past and created a new life for it, drawing attention to the heritage of the site and preserving it for future generations. The use of Bluetooth beacons and location-aware audio technology has enabled the experience to integrate seamlessly with the existing bluestone construction, whilst design features such as projections, object displays, and image collages work with the surfaces of the prison, not against it.

Finally, Pentridge Prison Tours have created a new and unique tourist attraction in Melbourne. Since opening in April 2022, Pentridge has welcomed over 100,000 visitors, with over 30% coming from overseas. Recent press points to Pentridge’s success in contributing to Victoria’s reputation as a cultural hub:

"The Pentridge Prison Tours are a must-see for anyone interested in Melbourne's history and culture. The use of immersive technology is truly groundbreaking, and the tours are both informative and thought-provoking." - The Age

"The Pentridge Prison Tours are a powerful and moving experience. They offer a unique glimpse into the dark side of Melbourne's history, and they are sure to stay with you long after you leave." - Time Out Melbourne

"The Pentridge Prison Tours are a shining example of how design and creativity can be used to tell important stories. They are a must-see for anyone interested in Victoria's history and culture." - The Conversation

Circular Design and Sustainability Features

At Pentridge, the building itself does so much for the experience, so our approach from the beginning was to utilise the strength of it. Instead of setting out to create something new and polished, we embraced circular design throughout, including:

Repurposing Historical Architecture and Materials: Instead of tearing down or discarding the original bluestone construction, quarried from the surrounding earth by the very prisoners confined by it, the project team cleverly utilised it as a foundational element to enhance the visitor experience. The walls were transformed into a projection surface and the cells became the perfect conduit to minimise signal bleed, allowing us to implement location-aware audio technology over speaker arrays.

Harmonising with the Site's History: By embracing the bluestone walls as a storyteller, the design breathes new life into the prison's surfaces, preserving and honouring the historical significance of the material. Despite the challenging nature of projecting onto the rough-cut bluestone walls, the project team utilised high-contrast monochrome visuals to harmonise with the wall texture and create a mesmerising storytelling experience.

Set-Dressing and Historically Accurate Items: The cells were set-dressed to reflect different eras of Pentridge. Through research of the living conditions at the time, we sought items that demonstrated the deprivation and gloominess of those conditions. Many of the items collected were found in op-shops or were salvaged from piles destined for landfill. Other items were donated, and some were found at Pentridge following its closure.

Bluestone Sculpture with Bone-Conducting Technology: The bluestone sculpture, fabricated from existing materials sourced from the building site, creates a conduit for visitors to connect with the site's haunting past. The bluestone comes alive through touch, allowing guests to hear hidden stories and voices that resonate within the walls, providing an intimate and immersive encounter with the prison's history.

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