Benevolent Asylum

An eclipse of historical fiction


Presented in 2011 at Fremantle Arts Centre, Western Australia, Benevolent Asylum: an eclipse of historical fiction resulted was prompted by a chance encounter with the disappeared site of Melbourne Benevolent Asylum, which sparked an examination of the origins and hidden purpose of Australian institutions of confinement.

Combining a performance environment and video installation, the exhibition features theatrical scaffolding, ramps and lighting to create a twofold scenography of a ship and a stage. This this multimedia installation is the site of an unfolding story of exile, transportation and confinement presented in a series of nine short videos and in the Benevolent Asylum program. It is also the setting for the performance of Lily Hibberd's play "Take me in" over four nights in June 2011.

Photos by Lily Hibberd and Christine Tomas.

Benevolent Asylum Program

This publication weaves the many visual and textual strands of the Benevolent Asylum exhibition, including the artist’s own writing, excerpts from the performance script Take Me In. The publication is arranged in three phases of an eclipse and illustrated by original photographs taken at significant historical sites across Australia and in Europe and a selection of images from the large archival collection that Lily complied during three years of research.

Scattered through the Benevolent Asylum installation, a series of reclaimed television monitors play a collection of short videos that examine the history of institutional confinement in western civilisation across Australia and Europe. And a big circular screen features a video of an eclipse. Enlarged black and white posters of images from archives and from the artist’s site research are pasted onto boards  around the space, alongside performance props and found maritime materials.

The project developed during three years of research, across Australia and Europe, including the history of Fremantle Arts Centre, which was founded as a lunatic asylum in 1857. This research revealed the persistent influence of 19th-century models of confinement in which state care and punitive detention are inseparable, such as British prisons Millbank and Pentonville, which were the basis of the Solitary System and a penology of isolation.

Nine videos produced during this three-year period weave Lily's narrative and site-based research in order to expose the roots of practices of solitary confinement in Australia’s prisons, detention centres and psychiatric wards. These videos also examine how these sites are erased from public memory through dark tourism. They comprise footage Lily shot on guided tours and site visits to Fremantle sites, such as its prison, Round House and former lunatic asylum at the Arts Centre itself. Lily also visited abandoned institutions all over Australia, like Queenland's Goodna lunatic asylum and the Benevolent Asylum on Stradbroke Island, as well as the former Parramatta Girls Home in Western Sydney. Footage taken of London’s Millbank and Pentonville Prison sites and the prison-hospitals of Paris reveal the common origins and contrasting remembrance of these institutions.

Take Me In


Take Me In tells the story of two exiles, Bea and Ward, performed by actors Siobhan Dow-Jones and Allan Girod. Written and directed by Lily Hibberd, the performance combines drama, history, direct account, physical action and music theatre, using the Benevolent Asylum exhibition environment as its setting. The text weaves fiction with stories from local Fremantle archives, as Bea and Ward narrate how they have come into the care of the Benevolent Asylum. Drawing on historical sources that have currency in today’s prison system and detention centres, factual descriptions of the history and politics of confinement are read out intermittently by the performers, who shift between acting and being themselves.

Memory Projects