Emily Bullock and the nexus between narrative and experience


Emily Bullock explores the ruins of a mental hospital in Tasmania @ Island
I stop in at the petrol station to fill up. The petrol attendant asks what I’m up to this afternoon and I tell him I’m taking a trip to New Norfolk. ‘Not a bad place,’ he replies politely. Less than twenty years ago, a trip to New Norfolk meant something very different. It was a trip to the mad house, the funny farm. Being only recently closed, the life of ‘New Norfolk’ is still within living memory. Mention the name and someone will tell you a story of someone in there or of someone who knew someone...
The abandoned site of the Royal Derwent Hospital – once Tasmania's only institution for the mentally ill – is inescapable as you enter New Norfolk from Hobart. An unruly collection of dilapidated, lacklustre buildings, the Royal Derwent is an arresting sight/site. As a kind of suburb in itself, the site occupies the fringes of the small and economically depressed town of New Norfolk, 35km north-west of Hobart. The asylum once served the entire state, housing up to 1000 patients in its sprawling complex. Patients included those with both mental illness and intellectual disabilities as well as those with a litany of other social problems; from schizophrenics to depressives, alcoholics to epileptics, psycho-geriatrics to the "criminally insane".In its working days, the Royal Derwent was simply known as "New Norfolk‟, a site so mythic that its own boundaries seemed to expand to take in the whole town. Here, the entire town of New Norfolk came to stand for the institution and, by extension, madness. "To go to New Norfolk", writes Peter Conrad, "meant, I knew, to go a bit funny; to lose your reason‟ (84). The Royal Derwent is the oldest asylum in Australia on its original site, but has remained neglected both physically and in public discourse since being shut down in 2001.In an article on the hospital‟s closure in Hobart‟s daily newspaper, The Mercury, the site was described as a "huge open sore" that could only be "healed" through re-development (Wood 37). However, the numerous attempts to re-develop the site have been thwarted due to lack of funds. Abandoned and derelict, the site straddles apparent divisions between public and private, interior and exterior, disgust and delight – the twin poles of abjection.read more