Meet Your Local FM: Old Melbourne Gaol’s Kathleen Toohey on maintaining complex historical sites

by Helena Morgan
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When attending a concert at a theatre, moseying around an art gallery or museum, or experiencing child-like wonder at the zoo, have you ever stopped to ponder who is in charge of the management and operations of this bustling and beloved facility?

This year, Facility Management launches a new editorial series called ‘Meet Your Local FM’, where we talk with the facility and operation managers, technical service and safety operators, and sustainability officers of iconic Australian institutions.

We’re diving deep to reveal a facility’s inner mechanics, along with the who and how of what it takes to keep these special spaces running so smoothly. We’re putting a face to a facility and debunking any assumptions surrounding this essential profession which many don’t know a lot about.

Kathleen Toohey’s job inarguably provides the best fodder for a dinner party ice-breaker.

“People definitely have questions when they hear what I do, that’s for sure,” she laughs. 

There’s curiosity, wonder and the inevitable follow up question – “so, have you ever seen a ghost?”

Toohey has been the major attractions and operations manager for the Old Melbourne Gaol for almost five years, alongside holding the same post at Coburg’s Pentridge Prison for six months and Polly Woodside for nearly three years.

Kathleen Toohey has been the operations manager of the Old Melbourne Gaol for almost five years.

The life of an operations manager in historical tourism

Her operational role – although not immune from the tedious morning email routine familiar to many of us – occupies an exciting space in the world of operational and facilities management and historical tourism.

Toohey landed at the National Trust-owned Gaol from a background of managing teams in hospitality and retail. Before applying for a 21 C position at the Gaol gift shop, she was feeling restless in store management at Haymes Paint, and yearned for something new and different. 

A self-proclaimed history buff and avid traveller, Toohey saw the 2IC position at the gaol as the ideal fusion of history, tourism and management. She secured a role as a part-time 2IC, and then six months later, ascended to acting operating manager.

Fascination with the unknown in history 

The Gold Rush exploded with gusto onto the economic, criminal and cultural scene of Victoria, skyrocketing the population from 23,000 to 90,000 in four years and necessitating the construction of the Old Melbourne Gaol in 1839. The gaol’s first cell block was opened in 1845 and quickly became “crammed to suffocation,” according to The Argus newspaper. 

From the Gold Rush onwards, the Gaol played host to major events in Victorian history – revolutionaries captured at the Eureka stockade were most likely detained in the old cell block, Ned Kelly’s hanging and after its decommission in 1929, detaining Australian soldiers who went AWOL during World War II. 

She sees people drawn in by the mystique of history and how and why people worked and lived the way they did. 

“People are fascinated by what life was like – we have a natural interest in the past,” says Toohey. 

Old cell block at Old Melbourne Gaol

As the 101st person to be hanged at the Gaol after 18 months on the run and a highly publicised and controversial trial, Ned Kelly’s fever is forever felt at the Gaol. 

Toohey guesses that Kelly’s status as a Robin Hood-esque anti-hero, coupled with the tenancy to fetischise the crude and criminal aspects of history, compels people to resonate with his struggles – hailing from a poor Irish background and suffering severe mistreatment from the police in a time of intense anti-Irish prejudice.

The buzz around the Gaol exemplifies how History can be made engaging and entertaining, while still retaining accuracy and intelligence. 

“Even if people say they don’t care about the past, there will always be something that interests them, and we see that at the gaol – the history behind the space is all encompassing and relative to everybody and it’s not just what happened inside the gaol, but what happened around it,” says Toohey.

The Old Melbourne Gaol 

As usual in the operations management world, the concept of an “average” day is a unicorn for Toohey. “Every day is just so vastly different,” she says. 

Although many of us probably conjure images of an operations manager at the Old Melbourne Gaol dusting Ned Kelly’s death mask – the Gaol has one of the largest collections of death masks in the southern hemisphere – or reenacting a scene from Night at the Museum, Toohey’s role covers many different things. 

She attends to maintenance issues, manages and trains cleaning staff and volunteers, brainstorms future programmes and sees to optimum staff wellbeing. 

There’s also the routine milk, tea and toilet paper replenishment and liaising with event partners – alongside school programs and general walk-ins, the Gaol hosts balls, work Christmas parties, and – shockingly – weddings. 

Closed only on Good Friday and Christmas Day, the Gaol is open seven days from 10am to 5pm, and hosts escape artist tours, a simulation of life in the city watch house, free self-guided audio tours via an app, a nighttime ghost tour, and the chance to have a hangman escort you around. 

Toohey explains the care and consideration extended towards the traumatic nature of the site, and says trigger warnings and wellbeing check-ins with guests, particularly schoolchildren, are imperative.

Modern accessibility at a Gold Rush era site

Technology allows for the Gaol to function as an inclusive and accessible visitor site with contingency plans in place so that everyone can revel in the magical sensory experience.

“We’re not the most technologically advanced, but we provide people with options – those with hearing and sight impairments can access information via audio tours and detailed placards, and pre-COVID, we had AR goggles for people with mobility impairments who could not get up the stairs,” says Toohey. 

Such features allow for a more welcoming and enriched experience, however Toohey believes technology should only ever be used to assist a tour, rather than eclipse the very essence of guided historical tourism. 

“Technology is constantly changing and we’re trying to keep up, but I don’t think we’d ever want to lose the traditional tour guiding aspect, because no matter how much you can get out of audio guides, people need that human interaction,” says Toohey..

Pentridge Prison and Polly Woodside

Pentridge Prison was only decommissioned in 1997, and has operated as a visitation site since April – a reality that necessitates constant check-ins and future program and event strategising. The prison is infamous as the site of the last hanging in Australia. Robert Ryan was hanged at Pentridge Prison in 1967, and his death sparked public outcry at the inhumanity of capital punishment.   

Comparatively, Polly Woodside has been docked in Melbourne for more than 50 years – owned by the National Trust for 50 of these years – and is a maintenance beast. “Ships are very needy and demanding,” says Toohey. 

The ship’s maintenance is owed to efforts from a band of hearty volunteers. “The volunteers are the reason why she’s the way she is right now. “They’ve restored her back to her original look and have done a fantastic job,” says Toohey.” 

Polly Woodside

All three sites under Toohey are maintained and improved by collaboration between the National Trust’s social media, marketing and commercial teams and the staff on the front line who gauge visitor reception – a synergy of minds that Toohey relishes. 

“We speak to the National Trust teams every week, and I really enjoy this side because I know that if I was doing this job for another organisation, I probably wouldn’t be as involved. One of the beauties of working for the National Trust is that we are very collaborative with all of our teams,” says Toohey.

Avoiding an interference with historical integrity 

Toohey cites the heritage considerations of the Gaol – and Polly Woodside – as the biggest challenges to regular maintenance. 

“There’s a lot of restrictions around what we can and can’t do due to the heritage of the site – some people see us not attending to regular maintenance as neglect, but there’s layers of history in the peeling paint,” she says. 

Thankfully, the old Gaol cell block was manufactured with sturdy and durable bluestone, meaning an authentic quality and condition is easily retained. Historically sensitive maintenance is carried out through consulting with cultural studies and heritage experts, and the team is also armed with a conservation architect.

The maintenance team are trained in shingle tiling and sash window repairs, and a heritage glass specialist – another title that is guaranteed to elicit wonder at a dinner party – regularly advises on maintenance issues.

Pentridge Prison, which was in operation until 1997.

Tourism’s ongoing recovery from COVID

When pondering career highlights as the operations manager at the Gaol, Toohey references an unlikely event. 

“This is going to sound strange, but getting through COVID was so rewarding. We literally had to start from scratch and build from there,” she says. 

COVID threw a spanner in the works industry wide, however tourism in particular took a destabilising hit. 

“We were that industry that was off the most as we weren’t essential, and we didn’t have any visitors for a really long time. We had to adapt so much – all the different experiences we offer – the actor sergeants locking you up and squishing groups into close quarters cells – had to be changed,” says Toohey.

Toohey came in every few weeks to conduct regular inspections, and then when everything reopened, things did not resemble ‘normal’ for a year or so. 

“It was almost like every couple of weeks the goalposts would shift and we would have to adjust, but we got it done every time,” says Toohey. “We always hit our deadlines and everybody’s still working here and we’ve attracted a lot more new staff as well, and our programs are starting to really blossom and we’re seeing that visitation back.” 

Irreversible impact on tourism

And even though many now perceive COVID as a dirty word, only spoken of in hushed tones due to reminders of pain and frustration, celebrating team resilience in a post-COVID world is important for Toohey. 

“It was just such a nice feeling getting through it – the way we went about it and how we put our staff’s safety first,” says Toohey.

She believes that the operational aspect of many industries will never be the same, and small and insidious reminders, particularly in hospitality and retail, linger.

“The city is still recovering and I don’t think certain tourism pockets will ever be the same,” says Toohey. 

Visitor connections harkening back decades

Toohey has many eclectic memories under her belt as operations manager at the Gaol. It is the people, however, who provide the greatest satisfaction for Toohey, whether that be customers or staff. 

“The customer service staff, supervisors and facilitators are so flexible and accommodating – we just want to create a fun atmosphere and culture,” says Toohey.. 

She is inspired by the visitors who come in with a personal connection to the sites. The team welcomes many ex- guards, ex-judges, and proud descendants of Ned Kelly who are always eager to share stories. One encounter with an ex-inmate takes the cake for Toohey. 

“I remember one day I was in the Gaol gift shop and a lady came in with an older gentleman, and she explained that he had been in prison here,” says Toohey. 

This claim initially aroused scepticism in Toohey and her colleagues as the prison had been decommissioned in 1924. “He must have been at least 18 at that time, but he didn’t look that old to us,” Toohey laughs. 

As it happened, this gentleman was detained at the Gaol during World War II, when it was reopened to house prisoners-of-war and soldiers who went AWOL. “Apparently he went AWOL to visit his girlfriend and got locked up for a week,” says Toohey. 

The paranormal 

Toohey holds an interest in anxiety-inducing paranormal activity – although admitting that continuing to place herself in certain situations at the Gaol errs on masochistic – and has witnessed a few unexplainable and hair-raising experiences during her tenure. 

“One winter’s night when I first started working – it was dark, and probably 6pm – I was packing up my bag, and I heard whistling coming from the stairwell,” she says. “I knew no one else was in the building. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end and after that I decided not to stay late anymore.” 

She also heard a robust “oi” ring out through her office building – the old city watch house, that she alleges is more haunted than the Gaol – during a fortnightly maintenance check in COVID lockdowns. Visitors on the ghost tours report feeling touched, pushed and scratched.  A singular footprint was once found on the floor one morning. 

Perhaps if people are true believers they are more susceptible to sensing energy or imagining noises. “I think some people would explain it to themselves as ‘oh, it’s just a noise,’ whereas others believe it’s a ghost,” says Toohey. 

She surmises that a mixture of sheer delusion and self-discipline allows staff to work in the Gaol under such conditions.

“I’ve often asked the ghost tour guides how they can brave waiting for tour groups in a cell alone, and they just do and don’t let themselves believe anything, otherwise they can’t do their job properly,” says Toohey.

Working at any historical site that has witnessed death and devastation requires extending respect and reverence towards the departed. “We always make sure that we are very respectful in the way we tell stories – if there are ghosts there, are they there because they want to be? Probably not. So we try to be respectful because of the history in place,” explains Toohey.

Merry-go round of viewing history with today’s eyes  

The Gaol is significant to the cultural and historical tapestry of Melbourne, and wider Victoria and Australia, but for many people, it is emblematic of cruelty, abuse and suffering.

Some may ask why so much careful and considerate maintenance goes into preserving a site representative of a time where horrific methods of punishment were commonplace. 

For Toohey, the notion that it is futile to view the past with today’s eyes resonates, alongside the dark and often irreversible place we find ourselves in when we try to omit horrific periods of history, for whatever reason. 

“I think it’s integral to preserve sites like the Gaol to show that life was hard and life today is still not easy – we can’t forget that or try to hide it,” says Toohey. “Despite the bad things that occurred at the Gaol at the hands of good and bad people, their stories need to be told so that we can learn from them and move forward in the right way and make our society better.”

Studying history shows us how far we’ve come

Decisions were made in history based on the prevailing attitudes – however abhorrent to our world – and the resources and tools available, and sometimes it worked, but more often than not it didn’t. 

“I think covering up anything that we now deem wrong is disrespectful for those that were part of it. It’s important to maintain these spaces because it shows a part of our national history, whether we like it or not,” says Toohey.

And tearing down gaols or censoring information from the past that is confrontational to the contemporary palette is no way to learn from mistakes. We celebrate the advances made, both big and small, before rolling up our sleeves and getting back to work. 

“History shows us how far we’ve come, how much we’ve grown, and what we still have left to do,” says Toohey. 

Photography supplied by the National Trust. 

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