Gaol House Blues


On Sunday 20th May, 2016, my friend, Jana, and I attended the Gaols Blues festival at the Old Adelaide Gaol (at Thebarton) because I like to do unusual local tourist events at places not normally considered a place of entertainment. We got there around 2pm and had a girls’ afternoon out with the whole trappings of Hills Cider and gossip, many people in groups with wine and platters in a scene that could be played out on a North Terrace courtyard, perfect sunshine and music. Yet the scene was the Adelaide Gaol and being a creature of passions, I found this strange to watch as I ate my jambalaya from a gourmet pop-up van (this seems to be a very South Australian thing).

Jana and I also explored much of the Gaol on our own and it sounds like an archaeologist and a librarian walked into a secret passage joke that ends with time travel and adventure involving a T-Rex. But a lot of it was rather sad even though  I enjoyed having Jana’s company on a Lonely Adventure because it was interesting experience in being a tourist, audience member and people watcher at one of these events held at a historic site simultaneously.

Above is a picture of me as a vistor to the Gaol as a historical tourist in the visitor’s chamber looking studious and thoughtfully explaining the Burra Charter before we headed over to Keryn Walsh’s archaeology trench display which is a true monument to historical archaeology.


Here is me as a visitor to a music festival, hipster hat and keds in tow, enjoying a jug of Pimms and getting a little rowdy. The Blues at the Old Gaol are a very clever use of the place, a dark site in its own right associated with an intangible cultural tradition with a long connection of pain and suffering that Blues own musical legacy will attest to.

However there was an awful lot of commerce around the event by necessity  and it wasn’t until I was alone watching the sun set in a ward that I really got the sense that some how this place might not be the right venue given the Fringe shows managed just fine without it. I’m going to do a ghost tour later in the year and see if my thoughts change on the use of historic sites like the Gaol or Z-Ward in encouraging the preservation of heritage sites through tourist commerce and entertainment.

It’s been the situation with Glenside’s historical Z-Ward asylum in order to keep it open they have had ghostly movie nights and a 1920s Speak-Easy. Tourism at dark sites locally in Adelaide seems to be a current cultural tourism  phonomena I noticed when West Terrace Cemetery started giving night tours back a few years ago and I got hooked on the idea of tourism at tragic or “dark sites.”

imageThe music venue and historic site have very different purposes in the study of tourism. I’m wondering if some of the historical atmosphere is lost when crowds come to be entertained by bands rather than educated on the prison’s history and how to resolve this juxtaposition in the culture industries in SA,  complementing our ecotourism, food and wine, sports and Mad March festivals’ tourism.

With the recent comments about the Fringe being an example that culture tourism could be our state’s biggest economic import, how does one resolve the social value of a place’s historical connections to a modern community with the need to create sustainable economic tourism gains in a poor state with w bad economy? As an archaeologist, part of me wants to preserve these sites away from damage caused by large amounts of tourist traffic but what value has a place got if it isn’t socially valued and retains its identity as a place in a community on a continual basis?

I haven’t got a good answer on that yet but the traditional guided tours weren’t offered despite the Old Gaol having a wonderful interpretive content that appealed to a wide audience and worked across many audience levels of age, learning styles and purposes for visiting. But in some ways for me as a history junky, letting visitors loose with cider in plastic cups detracted from the Gaol’s place as a space in Adelaide’s history as a dark site. It felt obnoxious to see people and their children eagerly and gleefully ringing the bell that tolled executions, posing in cells and carrying around jugs of Pimms (guilty as charged). Yet I’m okay with this same thing happening at the SA Museum at the Night Lab events (me misbehaving coming soon). Why the double standard?

The sun setting on the cells particularly moved me to tears and I hope the local artist who spoke to me about it captured the moment of one as pure despair. This is a subject I hope to explore in my masters thesis, why we want to have selfies taken at sites of informal tragedy tourism like Snowtown or recognised institutions of pain like the Gaol or cemeteries.

Part of a music event in this age seems to be seen and to show others you’ve been seen, are people paying attention to the history and age of a historical place in an event like the Gaol Blues?

Rose Santilli (Photo credits Jana M. Herber).


Author: lonelyarchaeologist

I'm an archaeology grad student with an interest in gothic archaeology, tragedy tourism and dark sites. Most of my friends don't appreciate my interests so I've taken it into my own hands and I'm going I've established this blog to chronicle my solo adventures and hopefully give you a look behind the scenes at cultural heritage and the local arts.

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