J Ward Museum

While I enjoy working in the “big city” Museums (Museums Victoria), there is a small community Museum situated in a town called Ararat, 2.5 hours from Melbourne, and open daily for tours by Friends of J Ward (FoJW) volunteers, of which I am research volunteer. It is this Museum, as well Aradale Asylum, which holds a place in my heart.


“It's continuance as an adjunct to a mental hospital, in this the 20th century, is more barbaric than barbarism.” Inspector General of the Insane, 1908

J Ward (Museum) is significant for social, historical and architectural aspects as well as cultural symbolic associations. What makes J Ward Museum also unique is that it is the only Museum representing the criminally insane in Australia.

Based on the Pentonville concept, J Ward was built in 1860-63 as the Ararat Gaol and was managed as a Gaol until 1886. After alterations in 1887, the site was transferred to the Lunacy Department and used as a special ward of the Ararat (Aradale) Asylum. For 102 years it was the only institution in Victoria entirely devoted to the care of the criminal insane.

The buildings ominous exterior was explicitly designed as a physical and symbolic deterrent to crime and is reflective of the philosophies which informed the construction of prison buildings between 1857 and 1864. J Ward is important for its association with the history and treatment of psychiatric illness in Victoria. The building’s interior layout and design represents the way of life of the institutionalised. It is demonstrative of the change in philosophy and administration of the penal system which occurred in Victoria in the late 1850s forming an integral part in the reform process through physical punishment.

J Ward was decommissioned in 1989 and is a representative example of prisons designed according to the Pentonville concept (of which there are five in the State) and is an extraordinary example of an asylum.


Today, visitors can experience a 90 minute tour through the Complex which includes the West Wing, shower block, main cell block, gallows, exercise yard, kitchen and Museum. Throughout the experience visitors are informed about the sites rich tapestry of history and heritage as well as the stories of past prisoners, patients, superintendents and staff who were once housed behind these walls. Visitors can interact with objects such as the mortuary table, restraint camisoles and leather gloves. The Museum contains objects pertaining to Ararat Gaol, J Ward and Aradale Asylum as well as archival resources such as newspaper articles, patient records and photographs. The gift shop also stocks a range of merchandise and books.

Things to know before visiting

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Jacqui Sanders