Dr Jo Besley, Curator of Remembering Goodna reflects on the historical human impact of Wolston Park Mental Hospital

The records of Wolston Park Mental Hospital are secret for 100 years. Cover up or not? Listen to the podcast and make up your own mind.

Listen to the podcast or read about it below.

In this Podcast Dr Jo Besley talks us through her journey of curating Remembering Goodna, an exhibition at the Brisbane Museum in 2007 and 2008. Goodna is one of the names for the Wolston Park Mental Hospital. The exhibition ran for 6 months and was visited by 60,000 people. The exhibition won an award for exceptional curation of sensitive material.

With the assistance of distinguished crime historian Professor Mark Finnane from Griffith University they dug up a lot more than they expected about its shocking history. On display were relics that Jo had found in a basement in one of the abandoned heritage protected buildings at Wolston Park. Among them, a mortuary trolley, an electric convulsive therapy machine, a barber’s chair, huge institutional tea-pots, lighters once chained to the walls of the wards, uniforms of nurses and wardens, syringes, cigarettes rolled in toilet paper, and an iron bed where a patient had once slept.

As part of the exhibition Jo interviewed around 40 former staff and patients of Wolston Park. She learnt that the most fascinating, and confronting history of Wolston Park was its human history. This is a history largely hidden behind closed files.

One day while doing research at Wolston Park, she saw, but was not allowed to read records of this institution. Jo recalls her frustration with the Public Records Act that protects the records of Wolston Park from being made public for 100 years. Convinced the release of these records are in the public interest, she supports an inquiry into the sordid history of the graves, the human rights abuses of patients, state wards and children with disabilities locked up in that place over the 20th century. Is hiding the records for 100 years in the public interest? Or is this a cover up? Listen and make up your own mind


Jo Besley has worked as a senior curator in Australia’s museums for almost two decades. She is currently working as a Senior Curator, Museum and Gallery, Coffs Harbour.

She has a Phd from the University of Qld called  Other people’s pain: trauma and testimony in Australian museum.

About Remembering Goodna Exhibition

“Remembering Goodna: Stories from a Queensland mental hospital presented the difficult and complex history of Queensland’s oldest and largest mental hospital that was founded in 1865. In developing this exhibition, the Museum of Brisbane worked in partnership with The Park Centre for Mental Health (Queensland Health) and Professor Mark Finnane of Griffith University, an expert in the history of the hospital. The exhibition’s curatorial team employed processes and principles that ensured that the history of the hospital was presented sensitively,
and allowed visitors to engage with it at their own comfort level. The curatorial approach favoured first-hand accounts so that the people who had lived and worked at the hospital had the opportunity to speak for themselves. The stories of patients and hospital staff were told side by side, often presenting conflicting and contradictory viewpoints. The exhibition attracted 60,000 visitors, around 650 of whom left substantial written feedback.” (Source; Jo Besley LinkedIn)


Besley, Joanna (2018). Other people’s pain: trauma and testimony in Australian museums. PhD Thesis, School of Social Science, The University of Queensland.https://doi.org/10.14264/uql.2018.678

Besley, J and Finnane, M. (2011)  Remembering Goodna: stories from a Queensland mental hospital in n Catherine Coleborne and Dolly MacKinnon (eds) Exhibiting Madness in Museums: Remembering Psychiatry through Collections and Display, Routledge, 2011, pp. 116-138

3 responses to “Dr Jo Besley, Curator of Remembering Goodna reflects on the historical human impact of Wolston Park Mental Hospital”

  1. It would be good for everyone to know the who truth about that horrible place it has completely distroyed my life. And no amount of money or Apologise can the damage they did to me at 16.

    1. Absolutely agree – the truth of the horrors of Wolston Park need to be told – a truth commission is the first step to recovery

  2. Elizabeth Phillips avatar
    Elizabeth Phillips

    The history of Wolston Park is the history of psychiatry and would be found in an investigation into any psychiatric facility…public or private. I worked at Wolston Park from 1977 to 2000 and am well aware of the less than ideal treatment and many patients perspective of their “therapy”. But the gruesome accounts in movies of drugs, ECT, and seclusion are not unique to Wolston Park….this is psychiatry, and not a huge amount has changed. Cigarette lighter on a chain is to allow access to a light at all times as patients were restricted with lighters due to risk. Toilet paper for rolling cigs was used by patients who collected buts and rolled them up. Proper papers were issued with tobacco. These things may seem terrible to the average person but they are trivia when compared to the real issue…the ineffectiveness of many psychiatric treatments and the difficulty in creating a pleasant environment for damaged and difficult people
    I speak from the unusual position of nurse, patient and carer and can see all points of view. Like Randall my daughter suicided at WPH. No inquiry would make any difference. All hospitals have major constraints and patients die or are seriously injured. There are many more strategies in place now than there ever were to curtail these problems. Psychiatry has evolved since the old days and staff do the best they can. Any inspection of these old records would reveal not a cover up but a dazzling revelation of how inadequate things were in those days. I have seen many old records and they are tragic and sad and reflect the poverty of psychiatric care those days. People, albeit with the best of intentions, focus too much on the beds,or the food,or whatever when there is really no way of describing the massive failures of medicine in many cases. Those on the receiving end have to blame someone for their suffering, those on the giving end suffer too when no treatment works and a patient dies. And when you have been on both sides you have to take a middle ground,see events from both angles and let go of the past. There is nothing to be learned from raking over the coals of Wolston Park. In the health system shit happens, and it always has, and probably always will, but there has been improvement and more disclosure so we can hope for the best.

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