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The guiding hands of heritage: Best practice in heritage interpretation

24th June 2017Heritage

Photography: Jean Baptiste Charlier (1861). Entrance buildings Pentridge Gaol.

Few other sites stir Melburnians’ memories in the same way as Pentridge. Built from bluestone quarried by the very hands that would be imprisoned within its imposing walls, it occupies a singular place in Melbourne’s cultural landscape. Any wonder, given it was variously home to women, children, condemned men and some of Victoria’s most notorious criminals.

Revitalising this site and shaping a new legacy out of its dark, difficult past presents a challenging proposition. The former prison complex is on the Victorian Heritage Register (H1551) and is part of the City of Moreland’s Heritage Overlay (HO47). Any development of the site therefore has to carefully balance the preservation of its past while also opening up potentials for a self-sustaining future.



Being listed on the Victorian Heritage Register requires the mandatory retention of some built fabric and archaeological heritage. It also requires heritage interpretation by site developers, in order to capture and communicate the legacy of that site. Heritage interpretation refers to all the ways that historical and cultural information can be communicated to visitors of a site, especially in regards to its nature, origin, and purpose.

At its best, heritage interpretation can do more than provide context to a historical place. It can also deliver social, economic and cultural benefits to the site and its surrounding community, as well as providing an engaging and educational experience for the public. Such aims have been and remain central to the vision of a revitalised Pentirdge.



In addition to the compliance required by state and local government, Pentridge’s own heritage direction has been guided by two key documents – the Conservation Management Plan, which sets out the basis for the preservation of the physical environment of Pentridge, and the Heritage Interpretation Masterplan, which outlines our approach to showcasing its cultural history and social heritage.

The former document was devised by the architectural heritage expert Bryce Raworth in line with the prescriptions of the Burra Charter, while the latter was drafted by SHP (Sue Hodges Productions), one of Australia’s leading heritage interpretation companies.

We’ll be sharing more directly some of what visitors can expect to see at Pentridge over the coming months, but felt it valuable to look at the best principles that we’ve followed in our preparations for the rebirth of this unique heritage location, as proposed by SHP based on their 15+ years of experience on over 100 museum and heritage-based projects.



There are six guidelines established in SHP’s Heritage Interpretation Masterplan that constitute a best practice approach to a site of Pentridge’s pedigree. They are: 


The notion of the ‘experience economy’ has successfully informed countless heritage restorations here and overseas. It is an interpretive methodology that delivers a framework where interpretation helps create an holistic experience of place. This model helps structure how people engage with a place, from the first moment they encounter it to their ongoing post-visitation interactions. It cultivates an emotional engagement that leads visitors into a powerful and authentic experience of place.


Heritage in interpretation at Pentridge is based on an understanding of the site’s significance and values. This means all the reasons that Pentridge has been recognised as one of Victoria’s most powerful and important heritage places. These include its outstanding built heritage, its archaeology, and the stories of the people who lived and worked behind the imposing bluestone walls.

Above all, the integrity of the site is preserved. The net effect is the creation of a unique destination that, through its historic preservation, is able to attract and sustain the interest of the public in a way that secures funding and business activity.


Most heritage interpretation consists of physical media in the form of signs, books, brochures and so forth. Recently however developments in digital technologies and social media have extended the kinds of interpretation possible with a site like Pentridge.

While signage and print-based materials still have a significant role to play at Pentridge, digital media allows us to consider ways to tell the story of Pentridge in a way that leaves minimal imprints on the place, and that can reach visitors both before and after their visit. It can also inform the architectural forms and landscape of the public spaces within, in such a way that aids the appreciation the site’s heritage and authenticity.


Creating a sense of place and belonging for residents, workers and visitors to Pentridge is a key role interpretation must fill. A sense of place is a collection of intangible values, with the most immediate value relating to the physical environment.

It is best aided by a clear articulation of the ‘big picture’, generally through the communication of a coherent vision of the site’s meaning through its architecture and history, and by means of structured activities that help locate people within that place.


The intangible history of the former Pentridge Prison is far-reaching and profound. It relates to the site’s social value, even its spiritual value as a location where no small amount of suffering and violence has occurred over centuries.

Acceptance of ‘intangible history’ in the heritage field is still relatively recent, and has only recently received official recognition. Previously, heritage sites were seen more as ‘commodities’ and ‘resources’. This has changed, and Pentridge’s heritage interpretation is not a matter of simply presenting it as a tourist destination.

By giving formal recognition to the importance of personal attachments to place, and the idea that places can also form a source of identity for particular groups of people, the intangible history of Pentridge can be allowed to stand forth as an element of its status as a heritage site that is truly sensitive to its past, and embody the values laid out in the Burra Charter.


In abiding by the above, our aim for Pentridge is clear. We wish for visitors to Pentridge to take with them an understanding of the prison’s history, and the role it has played in shaping the history of Victoria’s social memory.

We want to impart an understanding of why the prison is significant, and show not only its role the changing nature of penal reform but also what makes it a rare archaeological site. And ultimately, we want to tell the story of the people who passed between its wall, showing respect to those who inhabited the site, and those who retain a personal attachment to it.

We’ll be sharing more on how we’re setting out to achieve those goals as the year progresses. In the meantime, we invite you to subscribe to our newsletter, or register to come along to one of our Resident’s Group Community meetings, and talk to us about what you’d like to see take shape as part of the rebirth of Pentridge.