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Art, Industrial Relations

Convicts brought back to life in digital exhibition in Tasmania

Monash University 3 mins read

Media kit including imagery and videos available here

Thousands of English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish convicts transported to Australia, as well as people resisting colonial invasion and forced into the convict system, will be brought back to life in a first-of-its kind digital exhibition revealing a new understanding of the convicts’ contribution to the struggle for Australian democracy.


The Monash University-led convict exhibition titled UNSHACKLED will be exhibited from 13 March to 28 July  at the Tasmania Museum and Art Gallery, before embarking on a national and international tour.


UNSHACKLED reveals how Australia’s unfree convict workforce of 160,000 collectively resisted the exploitation of their labour in their place of exile, leading to improved conditions, embryonic unionism and ultimately the end of transportation. It also focuses on the more than 3,600 political prisoners who were transported to Australia as convicts for protest, democratic reform, media freedom, unionism, and anti-colonial revolution, many of whom had significant political impact advancing democracy.


Monash’s School of Media, Film and Journalism and project lead Associate Professor Tony Moore said political prisoners are a major focus for the exhibition.


“Few Australians realise their homeland was once the British Empire’s Guantanamo Bay, where about 3600 rebels, radicals and protesters were transported as political prisoners in the late 18th and 19th centuries. ‘Death or Liberty!’ was the rallying cry of a stream of political exiles including liberals, democrats and republicans; English machine breakers, trade unionists and Chartists; radical journalists, preachers and intellectuals; and of course Irish, Canadian and even American revolutionaries.”


“This rag tag bunch of journalists and political activists accused of sedition, as well as industrial and rural protesters, trade unionists, rebels and revolutionaries will capture the hearts of new generations. Their political impact in their place of exile helped democratise Australia,” Associate Professor Moore said.


UNSHACKLED’s Professor Hamish Maxwell-Stewart said the exhibition will reveal how, from the earliest days of settlement, Australia’s unfree workforce fought back through inventive solidarity in the face of brutal coercion.


“Over 20 per cent of Australians have convict ancestry, and the figure is 70 per cent for Tasmanians. Between 1788 and 1868, more than 160,000 men, women and children were sent across the seas in chains - creating one of history’s largest forced migrations to build colonial capitalism build a colony for no, or next to no, pay. This project reveals the way these forgotten champions of the rights modern Australians and Britons take for granted fought back,” Professor Maxwell-Stewart said.

Exhibition co-creator Steve Thomas, Creative Director of Roar Film said the exhibition will be a ground-breaking multimodal experience.Stories will be showcased through mini-documentaries, large scale animated projections, animated portraits, as well as collected material artefacts, from cruel instruments of punishment to weapons of resistance.


“Melding traditional museum presentation with engaging storytelling, the exhibition will bring to life the stories and characters with data-visualisation, sensitive and innovative technology, original music and soundscapes. Interactive screen-based media, large projections and augmented reality will lead the visitor through the exhibition themes: REPRESSION, EXPLOITATION, REBELLION & REDEMPTION. The creative approach and visitor experience could be described as ‘surprising, immersive and moving’.”


UNSHACKLED is created by Roar Film and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in partnership with Monash University. It is generously sponsored by the Mineworkers Trust and Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, with Foundational funding from the NSW Teachers Federation, the Trade Union Education Foundation, Libraries Tasmania, and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union.


UNSHACKLED is the penultimate public event  of Conviction Politics; the Convict Routes of Australian Democracy, a four-year ARC Linkage Project led by Monash University that has produced data visualisations mapping convict resistance and impact, an interactive online hub hosting 100 short documentaries and articles,  a book Unfree Workers, and teaching resources for Australia’s classrooms.


The exhibition will travel around Australian capital cities and regions, the UK and Ireland from September 2024 to 2026. Click here for more information about Conviction Politics, including the UNSHACKLED trailer.

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Conviction Politics: Investigating the Convict Routes of Australian Democracy, was funded by an ARC Linkage project grant of $757,205 over four years, with a further $310,000 cash funding and $1,094,251 in-kind contributed by industry partners, including screen production house Roar Film, the NSW Teachers Federation, The Union Education Foundation, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, the National Museum of Australia, Maurice Blackburn Lawyers and in the UK the Trade Union Congress, the People's History Museum and the National Records of Scotland.

The project’s university partners are Monash University, University of New England, the Australian Catholic University, Griffith University, University of NSW, University of Tasmania and internationally the University of South Wales and University College Dublin.



Kim Loudon – Media and Communications Manager

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