Affective practices and the prison visit: learning at Port Arthur and the Cascades Female Factory

Amy McKernan (Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia)

History of Education Review

ISSN: 0819-8691

Publication date: 1 October 2018



The purpose of this paper is to consider the ways Port Arthur Historic Site and the Cascades Female Factory educate visitors using the often contentious and confronting histories of convictism in Australia.


The research was conducted between 2012 and 2015, and included analysis of exhibitions and education programs at the two sites, as well as interviews with core staff, and archival research. Analysis employed a methodological framework drawing on Margaret Wetherell’s (2012) notion of “affective practice”, as well as understandings of historical thinking in education developed by theorists and educators.


The two sites take differing approaches to educating visitors about the “uncomfortable” histories related to their heritage. Ultimately, this paper argues that the Cascades presents a greater ease with communicating the confronting aspects of the site’s history, while Port Arthur’s interpretive strategies are often focussed on countering widespread assumptions about the “darkness” and cruelty characteristic of the penal system in Australia. Overall, the analysis finds considerable potential in the “use” of confronting and contested history in teaching aimed at developing historical thought and empathy.


The research addresses an issue that is of central concern in heritage education at present – interpretations of confronting and contentious histories – and employs an innovative set of conceptual strategies and tools to gather insights of use to practitioners in heritage and education.



McKernan, A. (2018), "Affective practices and the prison visit: learning at Port Arthur and the Cascades Female Factory", History of Education Review, Vol. 47 No. 2, pp. 131-142.

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Prison visits are a staple of the heritage industry, and often occupy an important place in calendars of school excursions. In Australia, Port Arthur Historic Site is one of the best-known convict sites open to visitors, and attracts significant numbers of visitors both local and international throughout the year, in spite of its relatively remote location about an hour and a half’s drive from the Tasmanian capital city of Hobart. Managed by the same organisation – the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority (PAHSMA) – the Cascades Female Factory is more accessible, located close to the centre of Hobart, but is less well known. In recent years, education programs were redeveloped at the Cascades, as part of a push for greater education visitation for children and young people of all ages. Both of the sites have established education programs and a focus on learning that is hands on, experiential and centered on developing historical thought. Formal education programs, as well as the interpretive strategies at the sites, emphasise “balanced” historical analysis and a desire to avoid “sensationalizing” the convict past. Port Arthur, in particular, grapples with a reputation of “dark history” and staff at the site seek to present a depiction of both the pitfalls and promises of the penal system in Australia.

This paper considers the ways Port Arthur and the Cascades present histories that might be considered contentious and/or confronting, as much of convict history can be in Australia, with a view to exploring the educational possibilities of the two sites for children and young people. These possibilities do, of course, vary according to the age of the visitor, with different concerns relating to the experiences of young children and adolescents. The paper’s focus is on the ways the two sites employ or provide opportunities for what Margaret Wetherell (2012) describes as “affective practices”, and how these are linked to learning in various ways. It draws on analysis of exhibitions or interpretive practices at the two sites, as well as interviews with core staff and analysis of archival material from a larger study that dealt with two additional museum organisations. Guided by the focus of much of PAHSMA’s educational material, this analysis is situated within conceptual knowledge about historical thinking in educational theory and research (see e.g. Wineburg, 2001; Seixas and Morton, 2013). Representation at both of the sites investigated in this paper is characterised by attention to both the cognitive and emotional/experiential facets of learning; interpretive “moments” are constructed to engage visitors in affective practices that take place within – and are designed to prompt – cognitive reasoning. In some instances, there are affects in play that are not part of the “design” as such – the landscape and weather at Port Arthur, for example, can have a considerable impact on visitors’ experiences of the site. This is in keeping with affective practice’s framing of “affect” as experienced within social spaces and entwined with cognitive processes (Wetherell, 2012). Ultimately, the two historical convict sites use interpretive techniques in different ways to guide and shape young visitors’ learning experiences and challenge preconceived notions about the “difficult” convict past.

Uncomfortable history, affective practices and historical thought

Heritage sites and museums increasingly emphasise the inclusion of “difficult” material in exhibitions and displays; arguments in recent decades have focussed on bringing to light confronting histories that were previously silenced (Abram, 2007; Golding, 2007; Nettelbeck, 2011; Patterson, 2011). With regard to convict history, the narrative of “bringing to light” dark histories does not quite convey the complexity of public perceptions of the Australian convict experience over the 150 or so years since the end of transportation. Port Arthur, in fact, became a tourist attraction almost immediately following its closure at the end of transportation, but, in spite of this evident interest, Tasmanians “found it hard to live down the legacy of the convict system”, which has long been considered a source of shame (Reynolds, 2012, p. 137). Australia’s relationship with its convict past has changed, partly with the growth of family history research, but it maintains a complex place in the Australian national imaginary.

Theories of affect and emotion in learning are central to this shifting focus for museums and heritage sites. The affordances of affect and emotion are increasingly emphasised in the design of museum exhibitions and programs (see e.g. Gregory and Witcomb, 2007; Trofanenko, 2011, 2014; Witcomb, 2013; Mulcahy, 2016). More generally, in education, research has explored the place of affect and emotion in representing and teaching histories of trauma and violence (Zembylas, 2007; Bekerman and Zembylas, 2011), and the histories of convictism contain plenty of both. Affect research diverges in several directions, the most common approaches centred either on psychological and sometimes physiological manifestations of emotion, or on broader notions of “force” and “intensity” (Wetherell, 2012). What Leys (2011, pp. 450-451) has described as the “turn to affect” indicates a shift from more cognitively-focussed “considerations of meaning or ‘ideology’ or indeed representation” towards an understanding of politically-situated “material-affective responses”. The problem, within the context of this research, is that these conceptualisations of affect position it as almost oppositional to cognition, and it is clear that within the sites of study both affective and cognitive drivers are in play, and that the specific social, cultural and political contexts of visitors influence both their experience and their interpretation.

Wetherell’s (2012) solution – for she has found similar limitations within the field of affect theory – is her notion of “affective practice”, a counter offer to affect research that, in her words, “seems to derail […] all the research that attempts to think in an integrated way about the specificities of the chaining and assembling of body–brain–narrative–feeling–response–context–history etc” (p. 75). Affective practice considers affect as entwined with “an ongoing stream of meaning-making or semiosis” (Wetherell, 2012, p. 355). It is, as McLeod (2016, p. 277) describes, “appealing for researching in a field of social practice such as education”. In this instance, affective practice enables an analysis of the meaning-making intents of the heritage sites; it provides insights into the experiential and cognitive processes for understanding the convict past at Port Arthur and the Cascades. It can therefore be interwoven productively with conceptualisations of historical thinking in education, which examine the ways students develop historical “skills” and consciousness and underpin curriculum in Australia (see e.g. Wineburg, 2001; Seixas, 2006; Lévesque, 2008; van Drie and van Boxtel, 2008; Seixas and Morton, 2013; Whitehouse, 2015). Aspects of historical thinking, for instance, Seixas’ (2006) element of “Taking historical perspectives” – a manner of describing historical empathy – are embedded in affective practices by their nature, although historical understanding is much more commonly viewed as a cognitively-focussed activity or “reasoning” (see e.g. van Drie and van Boxtel, 2008).

Increasing attention to contested and confronting histories has highlighted the important place of emotion and affect in history learning. These histories are seen to have clear potential in history teaching that encourages understanding of multiple perspectives of the past, as espoused by notions of historical thinking and the skills of historical analysis at the present time. In part, this paper explores the ways historical thinking can usefully be entwined with affect and emotion to build historical understanding in encounters with built heritage. Overall, the considerable teaching and learning potential of Port Arthur and the Cascades stems from an inseparable combination of affective and cognitive interpretations, reflected in Wetherell’s (2012) notion of affective practice.

“This place is just gorgeous”: Port Arthur Historic Site

Port Arthur Historic Site is well known throughout Australia, and is also a popular tourist attraction for international visitors. Located on the Tasman Peninsula, southeast of the Tasmanian capital city of Hobart, it is a relatively remote and quite beautiful site, the remains of the former convict settlement. Port Arthur was a particularly significant penal settlement during the period of convict transportation to Australia, and began to attract tourists almost immediately after its closure in 1877, as noted above (Lennon, 2008; Reynolds, 2012). As a site for secondary punishment, Port Arthur’s convicts were those who had been assigned to work for settlers, as was the system’s general approach, but had absconded or misbehaved in some way (Maxwell-Stewart, 2013).

Port Arthur’s “iconic” status in the Australian cultural heritage landscape was recently cemented by the granting of UNESCO World Heritage status. In 2010, the properties managed by PAHSMA – Port Arthur, the Cascades and the Coal Mines, a second site on the Tasman Peninsula, considerably less popular than Port Arthur – were included as three of eleven sites making up the Australian Convict World Heritage Property on the UNESCO World Heritage List (Port Arthur Historic Site, n.d.). According to the Conservation Manager Jane Harrington, the listing requires the interpretation of all elements of the sites’ histories, including their histories of neglect and tourism (Harrington, 2014). The listing is partly based on a recognition of the significance of convict history in quite literally building the nation – as Lennon (2008) notes, convict labour was essential to the early growth of settlements in a number of countries, including Australia.

The representation of Port Arthur’s history brings considerable challenges, not least because, along with its “dark” convict past, Port Arthur has a more recent history of trauma, as the site, in 1996, of the worst single-person shooting in Australia. The massacre, which had a significant impact on Australian gun laws as well as causing considerable trauma to the local and national community (see e.g. Lennon, 2002; Wahlquist, 2016), is not the focus for this paper, but it is important to consider its impact on visitors’ perceptions of Port Arthur, as this is key to the way the site is interpreted.

With knowledge and assumptions about the brutality of convict life, alongside awareness of “Ninety-Six”, as the massacre is often referred to, visitors commonly bring to Port Arthur the expectation of encountering darkness and horror, and this is a point of concern for the staff who seek to represent the convict system in a more “balanced” way. This is, in fact, a central tension at Port Arthur: the tendency for visitors to assume they will encounter dark and horrifying histories of punishment – and in some cases to actively seek such encounters as experiences of “dark tourism” (Hartmann, 2014) – sits uncomfortably with the desire of staff to represent a more complex story that acknowledges the rehabilitative potential of the penal system. The staff’s desires reflect a preoccupation with historical thought characterised by reasoning with the evidence and considering multiple, often conflicting storylines. The “Lottery of Life” gallery in the visitor centre demonstrates this; in this exhibition, visitors can explore the stories of individual convicts, each of whom experienced different opportunities, challenges, and sometimes traumas. This exhibition emphasises the theme that while convict life was often harsh and brutal, convicts with valuable skills or very good luck could have more positive experiences (Maxwell-Stewart, 2013). Affect and experiential learning are features in this gallery, as they are elsewhere on the site. Upon entry to the site, all visitors are given a playing card linked to one of the convicts whose stories are represented in the gallery. Visitors participate in affective practices of individual connection, encouraged to experience the gallery while linked to an individual convict’s experience. Experiences of “discomfort” are used throughout the gallery, in descriptions of convict life, the sense of a “lottery” or a game of chance in determining human experience, and through viscerally affecting aspects of the gallery such as the general darkness of parts of the exhibition and the opportunity to, for instance, try on leg irons. The staff do express a concern with avoiding presentism – the tendency for young visitors in particular to simply imagine themselves in the past, rather than consider the historical contexts and beliefs of historical actors (Seixas, Peck and Poyntz, 2011) – and these experiences are intended to take place within a process of historical thought that encourages critical engagement with the more “sensational” aspects of the convict past.

Much of Port Arthur’s and the Cascades’ histories as penal sites can be considered uncomfortable. Histories of crime and punishment can certainly be confronting, and as Reynolds (2012) writes, “violence was central to the [convict] system and […] its purpose was to instil a sense of communal terror” (p. 151). Although “heavy” punishments such as flogging, solitary confinement or hard labour were reserved for a minority of convicts, those punished in these ways “were not just unfortunate victims who fell by the wayside; they were necessary for the whole system, which needed backs to bloody, bodies to weigh down with chains and necks to snap on the gallows” (Reynolds, 2012, pp. 151-152). There is undoubtedly a great deal of “dark” history at both sites; however, for the most part, staff work towards what they see as a more balanced version of events – one that explores both the cruelty and brutality of the system as well as its potential to be seen as progressive in its approach to convict rehabilitation and education.

After departing from the visitor centre and its introductory exhibition Lottery of Life, and even before interpretative strategies begin their work to challenge visitor assumptions, the landscape itself has an impact. As conservator Michael Smith (2014) noted:

[…] the public come along with their own preconceived ideas about Port Arthur. I think they have trouble with the fact that […] they arrive here particularly in spring and autumn. This place is just gorgeous.

The scenery is affecting in a way that can disrupt the types of experiences that visitors expect; on a sunny day, it invokes a sense of peace and tranquillity and openness that contradicts the usual or expected effects of the prison visit, which emerge from notions of punishment, enclosure and captivity. The landscape’s beauty contributes to the capacity of the site to throw visitors off balance – in contrast with the expected sense of darkness and horror, it begins the process of destabilising assumptions that is part of the central aim for the site’s interpretation.

Crime and punishment are, for obvious reasons, the core focus at Port Arthur; however, the narrative that emerges from the site is complex and multifaceted. This is in keeping with the need to undermine the established narratives visitors arrive with about the cruelty and brutality of the system, and is partly a result of the diversity of experiences represented by various parts of the site. Visitors can explore the Commandant’s House, for instance, which is well-preserved and relatively grand and comfortable, and then steps almost straight from the house into the ruins of the soldiers’ quarters, which are far less luxurious. Continuing along the same trajectory, visitors encounter the hospital, asylum and Separate Prison, all while overlooking the Penitentiary, gaining insight into some of the experiences of convicts, before exploring the houses of Port Arthur’s free residents and their places of worship and leisure. The multitude of human experiences represented by the buildings alone, in their various states of preservation and ruin, muddies the sense that the convict system was entirely cruel and perpetrated by cruel men.

Encountering a narrative with this level of complexity is helpful for history students because it better positions them to avoid being “swept in” to the narrative (Seixas and Peck, 2004). A major emphasis is upon the theme surrounding Jeremy Bentham’s “mill to grind rogues honest”, which serves to highlight the rehabilitative aspects of the convict system. Exhibitions throughout the site serve to depict the many varied experiences of convict life, and to highlight the possibilities for more positive experiences for convicts who reform, or who have valuable skills (and can therefore be used for less brutal labour). This is not to suggest that the negative experiences of convicts are ignored, and the staff are as aware of a need to avoid “whitewashing” the past as they are determined not to “sensationalise” the violence (Harrington, 2014; Steele, 2014).

While there are opportunities for visitors to engage in learning with affective practices of imprisonment and punishment (most obviously through experiential moments such as the trying on of leg irons or entering the solitary confinement cell in the Separate Prison), these experiences take place within an interpretive context that often emphasises the innovative character of the system at Port Arthur. Ultimately, the affective practices of the prison visit are used at Port Arthur to engage visitors in multiple and often conflicting experiences of the system. In the case of both Port Arthur and the Cascades, these experiences run along two major lines: those intended to teach visitors about the orderliness and rehabilitative potential of the system; and those intended to teach the brutality of punishment. The Separate Prison at Port Arthur provides a useful example of the emotional responses likely to be elicited by various themes.

The space inside the Separate Prison is clean and ordered, with natural light streaming through windows and skylights in the high ceilings. The walls are very white – something that Steele (2014) notes surprises visitors, who “are fascinated by the fact that the walls are so white. Why is it so clean and tidy, surely in a prison it must have been […] no, well actually it was very clean and very white”. Cells are tidy and identical; lists of rules hang on the walls; and the chapel, with individual enclosed spaces for each inmate, is pristine if claustrophobic. All of these features are interpreted to give a sense of the order and predictability of convict life in this prison – the overall effect is quite peaceful – but a strong sense of punishment remains and is reinforced by the existence of the punishment cell, accessible via one of the yards. The punishment cell is a small, dark, stone-encased space, and offers visitors the opportunity to participate in an affective experience of solitary confinement. This space is more in keeping with what the staff describe as being something they wished to destabilise – the tendency for visitors to see Port Arthur as a place of cruel punishment, of darkness and misery – and is also perhaps one instance where more visceral affect overwhelms cognition. The freezing cold and pitch black punishment cell is a quite literal manifestation of the narrative of cruelty and darkness.

These differing, interwoven representations of the penal system as innovative and brutal create dissonance for the visitor, and this dissonance can be helpful for students of historical thinking because it underscores the tenuous nature of historical interpretation and the multiple perspectives of the past (see e.g. Wineburg, 2001; Taylor and Young, 2003). Faced with the multiple possible interpretations and overarching narratives that emerge from what is a large and complex site, young visitors have the opportunity to consider varied perspectives of the past and hold more than one historical narrative as “truth”.

In part, therefore, although Port Arthur’s staff express discomfort with visitors’ tendencies to view the site’s history as dark and brutal, its learning potential emerges from the opportunity to challenge these preconceptions. In addition, school visitors are often especially interested in the ghost stories and the more macabre tales of the site, and for this reason, ghost tours are a feature of most overnight school visits. As Education Officer Gemma Davie notes:

[…] questions are all about “can you tell us about the floggings?” “Can you tell us about the dark cells?” They always want to know the ghost stories, so you have to kind of, you know, use that a little bit, because it gets them interested in the history. But um, yeah there’s a way that we go about it, where we try to encourage them to think about “well what were some of the good elements of this site as well?”

These darker histories can be put to use, as Davie notes, to stimulate interest in the history – the “good elements”, she suggests, reflecting the preoccupation staff at the site have with ensuring that they do not reinforce a sensationalised, negative image of Port Arthur and its methods of meting out justice. This reflects Barton and Levstik’s (2004) argument that children and young people are more likely to want to learn about histories that engage them on an emotional level. Here, the likely affects related to the “spooky” and violent histories are used to engage young visitors in cognitive practices relating to the analysis of sources and reasoning about historical argument. This is demonstrative of the ways “dark history” is used at Port Arthur to promote “balanced” historical reasoning.

While the staff at Port Arthur stress the need to tell the story of rehabilitation and innovation, interpretation is not intended to overturn the “dark” narrative, but to muddy it with the complexity of multiple perspectives and conflicting experiences. The rise of “dark tourism”, or thanatourism, in which the attractions are those with or representing histories of violence or trauma, demonstrates the draw of Port Arthur’s more confronting history (Hartmann, 2014). In this way, visitors are invited to engage with several affective practices, some expected and some less so, in order to destabilise any notion of there being a simple story of right and wrong. These intersecting narratives with their apparently contradictory effects are also evident at the Cascades, but the staff expressed a degree more comfort with emphasising the harshness of convict life for women. Interpretation at the Cascades is undertaken largely through the performance work of costumed guides, and stories tell of the punitive conditions of life in the yards.

“It was a pretty awful place for the children”: the Cascades Female Factory

The Cascades Female Factory, which is overseen by the PAHSMA, is less inaccessible than Port Arthur, situated near the centre of Hobart, but is also considerably less well known. The Cascades was a smaller female prison, housing women convicts – and, in many instances, their children – in a class system that resulted in sometimes vastly differing experiences for its inmates. The site’s relatively small size and its proximity to the centre of the city of Hobart make it a more practical destination for school excursions than Port Arthur, and an education programme was developed in recent years in recognition of this potential. It is this recent work on education that makes the site an important inclusion in this paper; while Port Arthur tends to be the more complex site, the Cascades affords considerable opportunity to explore a different style of learning – one that is more museum theatre than exhibition.

The Cascades represents the histories of convict women and their children; enough women had children with them – or gave birth whilst in the prison – for there to be a need for a nursery yard within the complex (Kippen, 2006). The histories of female convicts and their children are often particularly confronting and generally less well represented than those of male convicts; the challenges of representing this history in education programs was of particular concern for Education Officer Gemma Davie (2014). The original site consisted of six yards, three of which are now under the management of PAHSMA. The remaining yards are the property of private owners who purchased them at auction after the closure of the women’s prison and the other state institutions that took over use of the site once transportation ended (Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority, 2014). The three interconnected yards under PAHSMA’s management contain a small visitor centre in what was Yard 3, Yard 1 – where the majority of interpretation occurs, in which there were originally cells, workspaces, a chapel, hospital, kitchen, and a small nursery, as well as the partially remaining staff quarters – and Yard 4, which was built to house a much larger nursery as well as the Matron’s house.

While the convict history of the Cascades Female Factory can be as confronting as that of Port Arthur, the Cascades does not have the reputation nor the recent history of trauma of the larger penal settlement. It is also a less complex site, given its greater coherence as a single prison with multiple yards; Port Arthur, in contrast, was a town with multiple spaces of residence, work and worship for convicts, overseers and their families, soldiers and townspeople. There is less discomfort amongst staff about visitors’ preconceived notions of convict history, however telling a “balanced” story remains important. In education programs, while children and young people are encouraged to ask whatever questions they like, the staff are aware of the challenging nature of aspects of the Cascades’ history. The Cascades does, after all, focus on female convicts and their children, who were usually sent to orphanages or were adopted, if they survived their infancy in the nursery yard (Kippen, 2006).

The histories of female convicts remain under-researched, although new works have been published in recent years (see e.g., De Vries, 2009; Kavanagh and Snowden, 2015). There has also been increasing attention to female convicts through the Roses from the Heart project, in which bonnets are made to commemorate each of the women transported to Australia from Britain and Ireland, led by Christina Henri and supported by the Cascades (Creative Partnerships Australia, n.d.). Interpretation for school visitors centres around the story of a convict woman, Alice, and is delivered through museum theatre – actors playing Alice and an overseer take turns leading the tour through the Factory’s yards, spending the majority of time in Yard 1. This strategy is, in a way, necessary; the site is a series of walled yards with little remaining of its convict era structures, having been put to various other uses post-transportation, and requires considerable imagination on the part of visitors to gain a sense of the historical space. Visitors move through the yards, watching as Alice experiences life as a convict, participating at various points in the narrative; for instance, performing convict labour (I volunteered to mime unravelling rope during the performance I attended). The story of Alice is an amalgamation of a number of different female convicts’ experiences, and exists somewhere between fiction and history.

The tour draws on historical sources relating to the different experiences of women at the Cascades. Alice’s story has “a bit of a positive spin at the end […] she realised that if she works hard and behaves really well, she can go outside the factory and make a life for herself” (Davie, 2014). Alice’s story is “the PG version” of the female convict experience (Davie, 2014). The most confronting elements of the history are not addressed in detail; although there does not appear to be any attempt to completely silence the misery and suffering, it is largely skimmed over. For instance, Davie notes that stories of children’s deaths, and experiences of rape amongst female convicts, were excluded from Alice’s story (Davie, 2014). This renders the effect less powerful than it could be, but also promotes affective practices that are more comfortable. Visitors are encouraged to imagine themselves in the position of convict – as I did while unravelling rope – but the effects of the stories told are largely about cold, damp conditions, hard work and the sense of confinement.

These are, in essence, safer practices than might be provoked by representations of children’s deaths or violence against women (see e.g. Kippen, 2006). Contrary to Elaine Heumann Gurian’s (2006) popular notion of the museum as a “safe space for dangerous ideas”, some subjects are not particularly “safe” in museums; or rather, in some instances, it is difficult to put in place the structures that would make the museum space safe for all visitors. This is especially true where there are no affordances for groups of visitors to make choices about the types of history they encounter; for a school group especially, stories of children’s deaths and sexual violence cannot be easily shared with all. These concerns vary, of course, by age; communicating the histories of children’s deaths to very young children at the Cascades can be particularly challenging (Davie, 2014), as discussed in the next paragraph. In addition, representations of sexual violence may trigger serious symptoms for visitors who experience psychiatric conditions related to such trauma (Herman, 1992). While teachers often have a sense of which students might find such histories too confronting, museum guides do not know the children and young people they present to and must take care not to overwhelm them. Given that the yards at the Cascades have been left as largely open spaces and there are no walls or enclosures that would allow separate, optional sections for display, which is a strategy used elsewhere, visitors cannot easily “opt out” of encountering difficult material[1].

Davie (2014) demonstrates a keen awareness of the requirements of a constructivist approach to learning, for example noting that the questions provided to students for use in the museums are focussed on “getting [students] to use their own knowledge and reasoning”. Edwards and Mead (2013, p. 32) write that constructivist models of exhibitions “acknowledge the co-construction of knowledge within museum spaces and that displays and exhibitions will invite a number of different readings”. Student-led approaches are one way the site staff deal with emotionally confronting histories, relying on the work of guides who encourage questions and delve into the areas of history of most interest to the group. Dealing with the histories of children’s experiences at the Cascades Female Factory carries the risk of confronting young visitors with the illnesses and deaths of many of those children. As Davie explains it, guides do not avoid highlighting the “awful conditions” for children in the Cascades nursery yard; however, they equally do not delve into those histories deliberately; rather they will respond to questions if they emerge during the tour:

We explain that there were fairly awful conditions, so that it was very crowded, what happens when it’s crowded, you know, it might not be very comfortable, they might spread germs, what happens when the germs are spread oh they might get sick […] we sort of leave it at that point but sometimes the children will come to their own conclusions and say “well did some of the children die?” “Yes they actually did, so it was a pretty awful place for the children”.

(Davie, 2014)

Here Davie notes that the Cascades education tours seek to avoid exposing young visitors to stories about the deaths of children. A line is drawn – illness is acceptable, but death should be avoided if possible. Davie expresses a belief in the need to not “dwell on those harder aspects of the history”.

The public perception of convict history also has an impact on understandings of life at the Cascades, although there appears to be less sympathy in the interpretive approach there; while interpretation emphasises a less confronting story than it might, there is a sense that the treatment of female convicts is less “forgivable” than the treatment of male convicts at Port Arthur. Questions of gender are highly relevant here, and it is also apparent that the presence of children at the Cascades makes viewing the actions of overseers and other staff there, as brutal, less complicated. The affective potential of museum theatre is further highlighted at the Cascades, but so are its limitations; visitors have less choice about the histories they encounter and focus on, and the opportunities to explore further the themes raised in the performance of Alice’s story are not as extensive as those at Port Arthur, which is much more established as a site of education. That said, the Cascades is a relatively recent addition to the Tasmanian tourist landscape, and therefore has considerable scope for development in years to come.

Both Port Arthur and the Cascades grapple with visitor preconceptions of convict life, but it is evident that the Cascades, with its less confronting post-convict past, can more readily represent systemic brutality and perhaps injustice. Similarly to Port Arthur though, the Cascades still highlights the possibilities for female convicts to “behave” and be rehabilitated, acknowledging the diversity of experiences for convicts.


Port Arthur and the Cascades offer important insights into the ways convict history can be represented and the ways historical thinking can be fostered alongside or as a result of affective and emotional experiences. The affective practices promoted by each site differ according to the interpretive strategies used. Port Arthur’s interpretation is, overall, intended to counter common preconceptions of a “dark” narrative, although there are instances where visitors are invited to “indulge” in more brutal depictions of convict life (e.g. while trying on leg irons). The Cascades presents a degree more comfort with discomfort, but does, in some ways, still skirt around the most challenging stories and themes – the story of Alice, for instance, is quite carefully constructed to avoid confronting all visitors with the worst of female convicts’ experiences. Again, though, this is perhaps necessary in museum theatre, where there is limited scope to provide visitors with choice about what they encounter. In some ways, the sites’ constructivist approaches and the emphasis on historical thinking undermine some of the affective possibilities – the practices engaged in are intended to be more historical (in a disciplinary, intellectual sense) than affective, and this is particularly true of Port Arthur. Experiential “moments” are employed to teach, but, for the most part, the staff focus on the cognitive interpretations visitors make in light of these experiences. The two sites thus raise interesting questions about the relationship between models of historical thinking and affect in learning. While the two are not mutually exclusive, privileging more cognitive understanding reinforces the notion that the affective practices of the prison visit sit in opposition to “true” historical understanding. This tension is linked to a central concern expressed by staff at the sites regarding presentism, the tendency for visitors to simply place themselves in the position of those in the past rather than making an attempt to understand the beliefs and contexts of historical actors (Seixas et al., 2011). This concern is strongly linked to the perceived need to counter visitors’ preconceptions of darkness and brutality; there is a desire to undercut affects that reinforce these notions. That is, compared to present-day conceptions of justice, the convict system was brutal, but it existed within and must be understood as part of a very different temporal context. It is this that Port Arthur’s interpretive strategies, in particular, are intended to highlight.

This issue is worth considering in light of affective practices and their place in history learning; this research does not examine visitor’s responses to exhibitions, and this analysis highlights a need for further empirical investigation into the ways affect impacts on and informs historical thinking. Ultimately, interviews with staff suggest that constructivism encourages visitors to question. As Steele (2014) puts it:

I don’t think we failed if everyone who comes here doesn’t come away suddenly an expert in the convict system. That doesn’t concern me at all. I am quite happy with the fact that most people come and just want to have a good time. But if in that good time having, we can insert some little things that make people – even if it’s through the ghost tours and people say “oh!” I actually think the really – for me the really important thing about education and our role is that we encourage people to ask questions.

There is some tension here, however, with the conflicting desire to see visitors reach understandings about the complexity of convict history. Although the constructivist underpinnings to the two sites’ approaches to education speak to visitor agency and interpretation, there are careful parameters set by design. The staff do express clear aims in relation to what is to be “taught” to visitors; while questioning is encouraged, the “end goal” is a stronger sense of the plurality of experience and intentions at each site. Affect and emotion are crucial in this process, while they are sometimes positioned in opposition to “true” understanding, they are in fact entwined with historical thought and cognition more broadly. It is only when we consider the complex interweaving of “body–brain–narrative–feeling–response–context–history etc” (Wetherell, 2012, p. 75) at historic sites that we are able to understand their potential as spaces of learning and transformation.

The concept of affective practice offers much to support learning at Port Arthur and the Cascades. Understanding the learning opportunities that are afforded at each site through this lens, which acknowledges entanglements of affect, cognition, and the social, cultural and temporal context, enables awareness of the ways experience and interpretation work together to teach. It allows us to see the ways the affective practices of the prison visit – leg irons, cells, confinement and darkness – can be muddied with contrasting experiences to produce a need to accommodate affective dissonance. Ultimately, critical engagement informed by affective practices represents considerable potential in teaching children and young people to think historically, and to understand the diverse experiences of those in this past.



Museum Victoria’s Love and Sorrow exhibition, for example, uses this separation technique with signs warning visitors about difficult content, as did the visiting exhibition Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions, developed by the National Museum of Australia, with warning notices on the entryway.


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Further reading

Logan, W. and Reeves, K. (Eds) (2008), Places of Pain and Shame: Dealing with “Difficult Heritage”, Routledge, Hoboken, NJ.

Corresponding author

Amy McKernan can be contacted at: