Spotlight: The Floating Museum

The deck of Success during the time it was used as a floating museum.

The former Burmese cargo ship Success was converted into a floating prison in the 1850s as the influx of immigrants seeking their fortunes on the goldfields caused the crime rates to explode. As a result, to alleviate the overcrowding of the prisons, the government purchased a set of abandoned ships (Success, Deborah, Lysander, President and Sacramento) and had them fitted out with cells.
The Success was the only one kept intact when the ships were decommissioned.

When turned into a museum in 1890, it was billed as a prison hulk, though it never transported convicts from overseas. The term is most commonly used to describe ships that transported convicts to Australia but can also describe ships that were used as prisons when moored. Many prison hulks in England remained moored to hold prisoners awaiting trial or awaiting transportation.

Exhibits on Success included methods of restraint and torture, wax statues of convicts and criminals, and a replica of Ned Kelly’s armour (seen in the bottom left corner of the featured photograph). For a time, former bushranger Harry Power worked as a tour guide on Success. Having been an inmate (even being involved in an attempted mutiny by Captain Melville) he was a perfect choice for a guide. Many of the stories were either embellished or fabricated to titillate and entertain visitors, such as the claim that it was the oldest ship in Australia; and some items on show, such as the iron maiden, were not related to the ship at all.

The museum was a flop at first and the owners scuttled it. It was salvaged, however, and after a tour around Australia, Success went on a world tour. It was eventually bought by an American and used as a cargo ship, but was turned back into a museum in 1918. It was destroyed by a mysterious fire just after WWII as it sat anchored in Lake Erie. Some items were salvaged but most were destroyed.

Footage of famed (and controversial) actors Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand exploring the ship can be found in the silent documentary about the 1915 world’s fair in San Francisco here.

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