Editorial: Black museum the obvious use for old jail

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Mt Eden Prison. Photo / Greg Bowker
Mt Eden Prison. Photo / Greg Bowker

No building in Auckland is quite as grim as Mt Eden Prison. Even the Historic Places Trust, which accords the Victorian structure its top Category One classification, talks of a landmark that is as forbidding as it is impressive.

This view is reinforced by the courtyard hangings and high suicide rate which were features of the edifice's 120-plus years of service. Being largely unloved, however, is no excuse for a structure of architectural merit and historical significance standing unused.

This has been the case since August 2011 when the last of its prisoners was transferred to the new Mt Eden Corrections Facility alongside. Regrettably, the Corrections Department did not use the time provided by the construction of that prison to decide what should happen to the old stone pile. Indeed, only now is a conservation plan being developed.

This will have to grapple with several problems, notably the unreinforced walls of the building and the security issues raised by its proximity to the new jail. These, however, should not be so insurmountable as to stop Mt Eden's development as a significant tourist attraction.

That has long been the prison's obvious use. People have a seemingly unquenchable thirst for the macabre. As much is obvious from the popularity of preserved prisons at Alcatraz, Robben Island, Fremantle and Melbourne.

There is no reason why a museum at Mt Eden that incorporated their best features would not prove equally popular. Any further delay in developing this concept represents not only a missed opportunity. It is, as heritage architect Jeremy Salmond has noted, undesirable for an old building to stand empty for a long time.

Its conversion to a visitor attraction would not be cheap. Before tourists pour into the prison, its unreinforced bluestone walls would have to be earthquake-proofed. Security issues would also need to be addressed. All things considered, the Corrections Department, Tourism New Zealand and, possibly, the Auckland Council will all have to be involved.

Other options are far less appealing. The prison was once envisaged as an administration block, but it is hardly an attractive working environment. And while backpacker hostels occupy some such structures overseas, a museum would surely be more profitable.

There will also be those who advocate tearing down the jail, a course that was scheduled as long ago as the 1960s when the maximum security prison at Paremoremo was built.

That, however, will happen only if the Government is prepared to override the Historic Places Trust listing, which is complemented by the jail's classification as a Category A building in the Auckland City district plan.

Such a course may just have been feasible as recently as five or six years ago. Not now. The bulldozing of too many of Auckland's historic buildings has prompted a number of vocal heritage preservation groups to emerge.

For them, any talk of demolition would make Mt Eden Prison a cause celebre. That it has been unloved for most of its existence would not matter.

Indeed, the very things underpinning that sentiment now point the way forward. The more notorious a prison, the greater its attraction. The loathing felt for Mt Eden by those incarcerated there, the staff who worked there and those who visited has no parallel in this country. It has many stories to relate. It should be telling them.

- NZ Herald

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