Heartfelt stories from Australia’s last leprosarium to be shared in New Museum thanks to generous loan

  • History of the Bungarun leprosarium in Derby, WA, will feature in the New Museum thanks to a significant loan by Sisters of St John of God Heritage Centre, Broome
  • The Derby Leprosarium, called Bungarun, operated for 50 years from 1936 until 1986
  • Thousands of Aboriginal people were relocated to the Bungarun and treated for leprosy
  • Music, art, sharing of culture was promoted as a way of healing
  • In the 1920s and 30s in the northwest of Western Australia the spread of leprosy (today known as Hansen’s Disease) had spiralled. 

    Leprosy spread rapidly among Aboriginal people and one in ten families in the region contracted the disease.

    To deal with the outbreak the Government of the day opened the Derby leprosarium, known as Bungarun. Hundreds of people at a time were isolated at the facility.

    Over a 50-year period more than a thousand Aboriginal people from across WA were treated at Bungarun. At least 357 people died, and are buried, at Bungarun.

    While Bungarun was a place of displacement, painful medical procedures and isolation, with the support and care of the Sisters of St John of God (SSJG), the facility was also a place for sharing of culture, music, art and healing. 

    These stories, and the experiences of the patients and staff, will feature in the Reflections gallery of the New Museum for WA thanks to a generous loan of objects and photos from the SSJG Heritage Centre, Broome.

    The Heritage Centre in partnership with community members have loaned the Museum medical equipment used at Bungarun, carved boab nuts made by the patients, photographs of patients and staff, and a precious violin and bow – one of the last remaining instruments from the Bungarun orchestra. 

    The orchestra was formed in the 1940s by Sister Alphonsus Daly who promoted the healing effects of music. She believed music served a dual purpose: the physicality of playing provided movement and exercise for stiffness, a symptom of the disease; and the orchestra was also a welcome distraction from the routine of institutional life. 

    Instruments such as violins, banjos, drums guitars, a harp and accordions were donated to the orchestra, along with hundreds of gramophone records.

    The orchestra performed music by Beethoven, Mozart, Gilbert and Sullivan and contemporary dance for audiences that were primarily from visiting ships.

    Bungarun was the last leprosarium in Australia to close. It shut its doors in 1986, though the site remains, including a cemetery with the hundreds that are buried there.

    As stated by Culture and the Arts Minister David Templeman:

    “I am delighted the New Museum will feature this important, and somewhat unknown, story from Western Australia’s recent history. This is a significant loan from SSJG Heritage Centre and its community and another example of the State-wide representation the New Museum is delivering.

    “Bungarun affected thousands of individuals and their families and is an important story from our State’s northwest. Many people are not aware Australia was affected by leprosy or that WA was one State where a leprosarium operated for 50 years. This story is truly extraordinary.” 

    As stated by SSJG Heritage Centre Curator & Researcher Sister Pat Rhatigan:

    “It is with mixed emotions we loan these significant objects to the New Museum. These objects mean a great deal to families whose relatives lived at Bungarun and it is sad to see them leave Broome, even temporarily.

    “We are however, immensely heartened that thousands of visitors to the New Museum will experience this important story and share in the stories of the SSJG Heritage Centre, and people of the Kimberley.” 

    As stated by SSJG Heritage Centre Photographic Collection Archivist Helen Mary Martin:

    “The Sisters of St John of God responded to the needs of the community, nursing and caring for patients at Bungarun.

    “This is a significant part of the Heritage Centre’s connection with people throughout the Kimberley.

    “The Sisters created a tranquil home under difficult circumstances and their care greatly assisted with the healing process.”  

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