Denese Griffin learnt to play the melodica at the Bungarun Leprosarium. (ABC News: Evelyn Manfield)
Denese Griffin’s teenage years were far from normal after being struck down by a rare infectious disease that meant she could only see her parents once a week.
- Denese Griffin was one of 1,400 Indigenous people who lived in a WA leprosarium
- She spent five years as a teen living in isolation, but still has happy memories
- Leprosarium artefacts will feature in Perth’s new museum opening in November
From the age of 15, she spent almost five years living in a quarantined hospital facility for people with leprosy — now known as Hansen’s disease — in northern WA.
The stigma that was long attached to the sickness means that, 45 years on, it still makes Ms Griffin uncomfortable to talk about.
“It was sad to be there because we were essentially locked up,” Ms Griffin said.
She was one of at least 1,400 Indigenous Australians who lived at the Bungarun Leprosarium in Derby throughout its 50 years in operation, until a cure was found for the condition in 1986.
Members of the orchestra at the Bungarun Leprosarium in Derby in 1948. (Supplied: State Library of WA)
But despite spending a significant part of her teenage years living in isolation, Ms Griffin still has plenty of fond memories to look back on.
“I didn’t want to be there, obviously, but my memories sustain me,” she said.
“I can’t say that I never want to remember because there was a lot of happy times.”
Music brought joy to patients
Ms Griffin was part of the social orchestra at Bungarun where she learnt to sing and play the piano.
“I think music was something that just rippled right through Bungarun,” she said.
Decades later the melodica, an instrument she kept from Bungarun, still brings a smile to her face.
Denese Griffin looks over pictures from her five years spent at the Bungarun leprosarium as a teenager. (ABC News: Evelyn Manfield)
Many of the instruments used in the orchestra were tossed away when the facility closed.
But a violin and a microscope were kept and preserved by The Sisters Of St John Of God at the Heritage Centre in Broome.
They help tell the complex story of Bungarun — one of sickness and sadness, and of recovery and joy.
“While we were all there because we were unwell, and there was rigorous testing and everything like that, we had, at the end of the day, music,” Ms Griffin said.
Denese Griffin spent much of her teenage years in isolation, but still has fond memories from the experience. (ABC News: Evelyn Manfield)
“The orchestra … was an opportunity for people to practice using their hands,” Helen Mary Martin from the Broome Gallery said.
“The microscope was the thing that put people in there and kept people in there,” she said.
Leprosarium artefacts sent to new Perth museum
The artefacts are part of a small collection being sent to Perth’s new museum ahead of its opening in November.
Helen Mary Martin from the Broome Gallery holds a violin once belonging to the Bungarun Leprosarium that will be featured in the new Perth museum. (ABC Kimberley: Tom Forrest)
Some Bungarun residents like Ms Griffin have shied away from sharing their stories for years.
“Even with my work colleagues I haven’t shared it,” she said.
But the new exhibition in Perth will shed light on the leprosarium and its residents.
“Because the disease was so stigmatised and such a feared thing it was hard for them to talk about and it’s only now that a lot of people are being able to talk about it to their families,” Ms Martin said.
“It’s never had the attention that it deserves.”