On 21 March 2017, Barry Godfrey gave a paper on the Digital Panopticon and ‘Dark Tourism’ at a LABEX Past in the Present workshop convened at the Kuumba Imani Millennium Centre, Liverpool. Barry’s paper addressed the ethical implications of the Digital Panopticon project. This was in terms of our responsibilities as researchers to minimise exploitation of the Digital Panopticon resource by providing appropriate representation and historical contextualisation for the lives of convicts that we are studying and making available online.
This post describes a project that myself and a colleague from the Architecture department at the University of Liverpool, Dr Nick Webb, are currently working on–Building Bentham’s Panopticon– which is creating a 3D model of the Panopticon prison viewed through virtual reality software, Oculus Rift.
Bentham’s Panopticon was imagined as the ‘ideal’ prison; it was designed as a circular building with prisoners’ cells arranged around the outer wall and dominated by an inspection tower. From the tower the prison inspector would be able to gaze upon the prisoners at all times. The central inspection principle, Bentham argued, would result in ‘morals reformed, health preserved, industry invigorated, instruction diffused, public burdens lightened…all by a simple idea in architecture’ (Bentham, 1787).
Due to its escalating cost, his designs were never put in to practice. But the recent digitization of Bentham’s plans by Transcribe Bentham, alongside advances in virtual reality software, means that we now have the opportunity to digitally construct the Panopticon and venture inside.
This small element of the wider Digital Panopticon project seeks to explore how we can use digital technology to examine and recreate alternative ways of seeing and experiencing, in a particular space and place-the Panopticon prison- had it been built. Through the use of 3D modelling and virtual reality technology, we can recreate the perspective, positioning and movements- through sight lines, walking routes, and height and weight records- of the gaolers and prisoners who could have potentially been imprisoned within the walls of the Panopticon.
In doing so, this project takes its inspiration from Tim Hitchcock, who is currently modelling the Old Bailey courtroom, and contends that by, ‘building something in three dimensions, with space, physical form and performance, along with new forms of analysis of text; can change how we understand the experience of imprisonment; allow a more fully empathetic engagement with offenders; along with a better understanding of how their experience impacted on the exercise of power and authority’.
Building Bentham’s Panopticon rests upon two lines of enquiry. Firstly, it seeks to rebuild and re-examine the idealized construction of prison discipline at its most ideological- to examine the beginning of the separate, silent system and the development of modern prison reform through architecture. But it also seeks to contribute to a history from below and examine how, by adding in height and weight records of offenders, we can rebuild the perspectives, movements, and thereby explore the potential for transgression that could have occurred within a prison like the Panopticon.
We are about halfway through our research, and are yet to add in biometric data of prisoners taken from the Digital Panopticon project. Yet, in building the model using SketchUp, we have already begun to discover important findings.
The use of 3D modelling has been essential to visualising Bentham’s process and building the interior of the Panopticon. Bentham’s plans, letters and writings about the Panopticon represent a conversation- between himself, architects, managers, and politicians- that include a series of changes to the design of the building and its regime. We are very early on in our findings, but constructing the Panopticon using 3D software, SketchUp, has demonstrated the significance of using this technology to investigate different lines of historical enquiry. Bentham’s never completed the design for the Panopticon, and the debate continued from the 1780s to 1820s. However, plans exist from 1787 and 1791 and these designs are the source from which we have built the 3D models. However, the interior was never fully decided upon due to conflicts between, amongst others, Bentham, John Howard, and William Pitt the Younger.As Nick Webb has argued previously, ‘This is important, as inferences have to be made due to representational source data such as architectural drawings almost always being incomplete’. Therefore, it is necessary to delve in to primary and secondary resources to explore the context, and fill in the gaps in an informed way. For example, Bentham initially wanted the Panopticon to be made out of glass and cast iron. ‘Architecturally’, according to Janet Semple, ‘the Panopticon foreshadows Paxton’s Crystal Palace rather than Pentonville’. However, despite technological innovation in glass manufacture in the late eighteenth century, the building materials were never decided upon, so Nick and I decided to use London stock brick as this was the most commonly used material in London at the close of the eighteenth century.
The models take the form of an idealised, architectural plan, and our current focus is to examine how a series of changes and compromises in the design, seen through the application of 3D modelling, demonstrate the political ideas behind the introduction of the separate, silent system and solitary confinement, but also the relative positions and viewpoints of the different historical actors, in this case, the gaoler, chaplain, and inmates.
What currently interests us at the moment is lines of vision and mobilities as, for Bentham and Foucault, panopticism as a principle is about the power of the gaze- of observation, regulation and power. But I would argue that Foucault and Bentham both had simplistic arguments when it comes to this aspect. In terms of sight lines, or what people can see when stood or walking through a particular point in space, this study builds upon the work of Philip Steadman (UCL). Steadman sketched out two dimensional axonometric drawings of the Panopticon, but with the use of 3D, we are able to build the interior of the Panopticon and therefore provide a space in which the viewer can walk around the prison and inhabit the potential routes of the gaolers, chaplain, and offenders. Steadman draws upon architectural research to plot the totality of what can be seen from a fixed position- also known as an ‘isovist’. (Steadman, 2012: 16).
In Steadman’s image here, you’ll see that the shaded area shows the warder’s isovist. The warder must circulate continuously to watch all the prisoners on his floor. But Steadman’s method, while highlighting the problems in Bentham’s design, is set from a fixed point. Our study builds on this in two crucial ways: firstly, we are able, through the use of Oculus Rift and Virtual Reality Software, to recreate the viewpoints and sight perspective of the gaoler, chaplain, visitors, and offenders, and secondly, we are able to move beyond fixed isovist points to follow the potential mobilities of both gaoler and offender had they been incarcerated in the Panopticon.
So Bentham designed the process of observation to be one way; that is, that the governor, gaolers, other prison staff, and prison visitors to be able to observe the convicts, but that the convicts could only look upon the inspectors gallery. This was, in essence, the central inspection principle. The idea was that every prisoner should be under constant apprehension that he might be observed, night and day, even if no-one was actually looking in his direction at that very moment. He would thus be constantly fearful of being discovered in any misdemeanour.
The Panopticon was a disciplinary technique for making a new social individual; a social laboratory where new subjects were made. Under Bentham’s design, the inmate doesn’t know when they are being watched, and assumes that they are under surveillance at any time. Therefore the prisoner is the subject of observation and power – and this is power through observation. By learning to internalize system of discipline, to watch himself or herself, the Panopticon, theoretically at least, aimed to produce reform through the regulation of the self. The aim of this kind of discipline was, according to Foucault, to turn inmates into quiet, orderly, tractable, malleable subjects or what he provocatively calls ‘Docile Bodies’. As Foucault stated, ‘solitude is the primary condition of total submission’ (Foucault, 1975: 237). Each individual, in his place, is securely confined to a cell from which he is seen from the front by the supervisor; but the side walls prevent him from coming into contact with his companions.
He is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication (Foucault, 1975: 201).The prisoner is therefore, the object of power rather than an agent of power – ‘the object of information’ – never a ‘subject in communication’.
And it is this very notion- the power of the gaze and the power relations that manifest through looking- that Building Bentham’s Panopticon seeks to investigate. The use of 3D and Virtual Reality technology, allows us to put Foucault’s theory, and Bentham’s designs, to the test.
NB Please note that the models are incomplete at present, so may contain errors and inconsistencies. T. Hitchcock, ‘Voices of Authority: Towards a history from below in patchwork’, https://blog.digitalpanopticon.org/?cat=25 [Accessed 22 April 2016].  J. Semple (1993), Bentham’s Prison: A Study of the Panopticon Penitentiary (Oxford University Press: Oxford).  N. Webb & A. Brown (2016). Digital re-analysis of lost architecture and the particular case of Lutyens׳ Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral. Frontiers of Architectural Research.  J. Semple (1993), Bentham’s Prison: A Study of the Panopticon Penitentiary (Oxford University Press: Oxford), pp. 116-117.
Most of us have at one time or another wondered about our ancestors. Even the historians whose bread and butter is the study of social, political, economic or cultural histories speculate about their own family’s part in the unfolding of the wider movements and economic changes down the ages. Many others have studied the genealogical websites, and laboured in the archives, simply to chart the family line further and further back until either reliable data or stamina are exhausted. New pieces of information that are discovered may offer a glimpse of a family ‘on the make’ or a family ‘on the slide’. Whatever the case, family history has become a persistent and compelling pastime enjoyed by millions of people.
(Image via RootsChat)
For those without an aristocratic pedigree to fall back on, family piety used to amount to little more than repeated anecdotes about half-remembered relatives. Now that the internet has democratized information, anyone with a computer and a measure of determination can go much further. Archives and public records and censuses are accessible to all, and there’s plenty of advice on how to make sense of them. The viewing figures for the BBC’s series ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ have held up for a decade, while ‘Secrets From the Clink’, its lurid ITV cousin, adds a distinctively Dickensian preoccupation with forebears who served time. The investigation of family history has become the third most popular online activity, after shopping and pornography. Primary research is no longer exclusively a matter for academic historians, traditionally concerned with movements that shape national destinies – wars, politics, conquest, or trade. Amateurs can share the buzz of a first-hand encounter with discovery, retrieving neglected documents and filling in the gaps in a family tree. If you have ancestors and a search engine, you too can be a historian.
(Image via http://www.victorianchildren.org)
Unsurprisingly, professionals in the business of history have mixed feelings about the swarm of explorers among the databases. Every historian sympathizes with the impulse to learn about the past. But bare facts about long-buried members of a family can’t reveal much about the broader cultural and economic circumstances that defined their lives, and those who pursue them often do so in the context of their own interests and priorities. Objective analysis takes second place to the resurrected details (revealing self-made success, lost grandeur, anti-authoritarian spirit or helpless victimhood) that best confirm the values of the investigator. Trained historians observe, sometimes disdainfully, that such researchers are looking for archival comfort food. But in general family detectives are too busy digging for the next piece of evidence to take offence, while their denigrators are not seriously threatened by part-time rivals. The two breeds of historians are more or less prepared to tolerate each other, though there isn’t much traffic between them.
(MEPO 6, 8 March 1907. Available at findmypast.co.uk)
Perhaps the Digital Panopticon can help to bridge the divide? The data provided is clearly of use and of interest to those researching their family history. Indeed the information that can be found in the prison records can reveal more about the character, physique, and exploits of forefathers than almost any other record. In this respect they are a boon to the genealogist, and a first-rate source of information. Each of the life stories revealed by the Panopticon is varied and interesting enough to be studied in its own right. However, when taken together they are invaluable to the social historians as a guide to (for example) the height and weight of the ordinary Londoner, the character of crime and punishment in the nineteenth century, and the long-term effects of transportation and imprisonment on generations of families living in Australia and in the United Kingdom. The next trick might be to persuade the two communities (genealogists and social historians) that they have something in common. They might even learn something by talking to each other, not least because descendants can provide valuable information to historians about the identities and experiences of their forebears. They can fill in the gaps and silences that punctuate the records. In return, historians can add context to family histories by revealing the social conditions in which our ancestors lived, loved, and laboured.
Professor Dinah Birch
Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Exchange
University of Liverpool
Both Rapheal Samuel (1994) and Patrick Wright (1994) have critiqued the role of museums and those charged with preserving historical buildings and artefacts in the repackaging of the past by a heritage `industry’ that panders to dominant national myths. The preservation and re-presentation of the physical remains of institutions and their interpretation by educationalists is an attempt to make complex socio-cultural changes understandable to public comprehension. The political and academic orientations of the archivists, exhibition organisers and museum bodies inevitably collude in this enterprise of turning complex and often contradictory histories into a narrative for consumption. The propensity is for museum managers to over-employ distinct and rather narrow visions of traditional values and characteristics in order to present incarceration and punishment as progressive has meant that the public is confronted with a rather simplistic rendering of crime, policing and punishment for the late-Victorian period through to World War Two. In our museums we often see out-dated restraints, convict masks, straight-jackets, and so on, usually accompanied by a commentary about how these barbaric techniques of control have been washed away by penal progress, but what about ‘pin-down’ which was used until the 1990s, or other “Home Office Approved Techniques” used today on prisoners, and asylum-seekers?
It seems incumbent on academics as well as museum specialists to join together to refine these representations and to help make sense of the competing notions, interpretations, and explanations for punishment in this historical period in a way which allows for different interpretations to be presented. Sites of dark tourism should be steered away from offering a history of crime and punishments that suggests a straight and unfaltering line of progress from the nineteenth century to the present day criminal justice system. However, despite carrying out (often publicly funded) high quality research, and opening up vigorous and engaging debate in international conferences, academics are not as engaged in public debates about crime, history, and heritage as they could be. Academic discourse, which usually applies a more complex analysis to historical data and phenomenon than is wanted by journalists or needed by museum managers, is not highly visible in the heritage sector, or in the modern media.
Modern media debates on crime and order deal with academic historical research predominantly in two disappointing ways. The first it to marginalise academic history because they fail to see its relevance to the present day. The second, and sadly much more common is to attempt to cajole historical data into forms which appear to support conservative political agendas. This has become particularly the case when it comes to discussion of the causes and impacts crime, or with policing policies and practice. Academics, in turn, decry the media’s populist and simplistic approach to complex issues, and the ‘master and servant’ attitude of some journalists. At the current time, the relationship between academics and the media is truly a distant and unhappy one. Conflicting agendas held by these two groups suggests it is unlikely that the relationship will change in the near future.
Nevertheless, despite the inability of academic discourse to penetrate the mass media to any significant extent, the study of the past is still popular at undergraduate level, oral history is a widely practised craft carried out by people and groups across the country, and important academic research still continues to inform local and family history. Crime historians still have a large role to play in shaping the understanding and presentation of crime history outside of universities. Historians are becoming more and more involved in interpreting sites of justice and punishment for the general public – be they physical, or virtual. So, academic history is still having some impact on the way we view the history of crime.
It is therefore now worth considering whether this has become the main (or only) form of impact that crime historians can have, or whether there is a role for them to play in formulating new criminological theory, or social policy? Where should, or could, the influence of academic crime histories extend?
There are approximately nine million family history researchers in the UK. The New Digital Media which I’ve described in Crime in England 1880-1945 (Routledge 2014) feeds their enthusiasm and makes it easy for new adherents to start researching their family histories. The ease of finding online data means that it does not take people very long to trace their family history back to the mid nineteenth-century (about as far back as their great-great-grandparents). Almost inevitably this popular pastime has developed a commercial element, with its own websites (for example www.blacksheepancestors.com; www.societyofgenealogists.com/was-your-ancestor-a-criminal/; www.geni.com/…/do-you-have-a-criminal-in-your-family-tree-354741.html), popular magazines (there are lots of them on the shelves of high street newsagents), and Radio/TV shows (for example, “Tracing Your Roots” on Radio 4; “Who Do You Think You Are?” on BBC1).
Approximately six million viewers watched actress Patsy Kensit unravel both her father and grandfather’s involvement with the courts. Ancestors who have had brushes with the law feature quite heavily on these shows. Having a criminal ancestor is a little like hitting the jackpot for family historians. In addition to the increased chance of an official record being available, there is usually an interesting story behind the facts of the criminal case. Crime seems to be inherently fascinating, and having a forefather convicted of, say, poaching, or horse-stealing, means that one’s ancestor stands out from the crowd. Of course, the excitement might wane if the family member concerned was a convicted bigamist or a sex-offender. Family historians may be unprepared for the emotional consequences of that kind of unwanted knowledge.
On finding a `criminal past’, in order to make sense of the discovery, some will turn to academic histories, or other primary resources such as Old Bailey Online in order to find out more about particular crimes, or the specific punishments (this might explain the nearly one million annual visitors to the website). They might also, like so many other people, want to watch either factual or fictional representations of Victorian or Edwardian crime and policing to help them get a ‘feel’ for the space and place which their ancestor inhabited. Some have suggested that the fictional Constable George Dixon epitomises the “Golden Age” of policing in the 1940s and 50s in the way that the fictional North Yorkshire police officers do in the BBC series “Heartbeat”. These gentle homage to community policing have been swamped latterly by depictions of the pre-World War One period – the landscape in television’s “Ripper Street” or Guy Richie’s “Sherlock Holmes” films seems more appropriate for depictions of violent crime and disorder (something that seems more suited to the fears we have for modern society in the new Age of Austerity perhaps?).
Unfortunately, however, the considerable interest in televisual representations of crime in this period has not readily translated into an upsurge in academic interest amongst the viewing public. More often it encourages, not a trip to the university to sign up for a degree course in criminology, but a visit to the (admittedly more sensational) sites, both physical and digital of “Dark Tourism”.
There is a strong argument to be made that public histories of crime have never been more popular. Public access to, and interest in, the crimes, punishments, and offenders of the past have rarely been greater. As those at the forefront of uncovering new histories, and pioneering innovative research, how can academic crime historians, and the rich and informative histories they create, take a more central role in the development and dissemination of popular programming?
More widely, is there a greater opportunity for academics to become more forceful in shaping other general histories of crime, or in interpreting gaol and court sites? In the world of instant internet information, and the, at times anti-intellectual, mass media what role is there for academic crime historians – and should we be fighting harder to expand it?
Almost all gaol, police and court museums now have websites to advertise their attractions, but they are still primarily places that you have to physically visit. To fully participate in the convict experience visitors will have to feel the cold dampness of a stone prison wall; feel the claustrophobic conditions of a cramped cell; lie on an uncomfortable prison mattress and feel every lump and bump of the basic metal bed below. I am not saying that this fully reproduces the experience of being a prisoner – after all, visitors are not locked in a cell 23 hours a day for months on end. However, there is something valuable in standing on a Victorian prison landing; or standing in the dock of, say, St Georges Hall (Liverpool Assize Court) and feeling how exposed and vulnerable a defendant appearing there must have felt – Florence Maybrick, for example, who was prosecuted there in 1889 (Watson 2004).
At the moment there are no solely virtual environments which attempt to recreate the Victorian or Edwardian prison (although it is possible that one will be developed at some point), however, some heritage sites do have very sophisticated ‘online doorways’ through which you are lead in order to further entice you to visit the actual site itself. So to some extent we can journey to dark sites of pain and punishment whilst sitting at home in front of the laptop. When we do, the interpretation of what we are seeing becomes even more important. It also becomes much harder, for it is difficult enough for museums to devise interpretive devices which present information to visitors in person at the site, but trying to appeal to the hugely divergent set of online viewers in the short period of time that ‘surfers’ spend on a website, whilst at the same time maintaining sensitivity to the subject matter, must be impossible. Museums must feel constrained by the divergent needs to both educate and to entertain online viewers as they do for visitors to the physical site itself. Museums are, after all, trying to keep their financial heads above water, and an overly dry and didactic website full of academic text may put off some who might otherwise have been tempted to visit. The jarring nature of some website blurbs reveal the strain of trying to be authentic to the experience, whilst also seeking to gather in the greatest number of ‘bums-on-seats’:
“Many families planning a visit to Alcatraz worry about bringing children to a former penitentiary – they often ask us if it is appropriate for them. Our answer is a definite ‘yes!’ There is no reason to hesitate bringing children to the Rock.”.
The intention of gaol museum websites is to attract people to go there; they encourage inclusive involvement, which is a good thing. The vast majority of people will never have the opportunity of visiting a prison and therefore going to a gaol museum (even a former one which may have closed years or decades earlier) might encourage some insight into what life is really like for prisoners today. However, there are a few ‘places’ which are nearly or wholly cyber-sites of Dark Tourism. For example, although there are a few permanent museum exhibitions which portray the horror of the RMS Titanic’s demise (in Liverpool, Belfast, and Halifax, Nova Scotia) there are also 132 million websites dedicated to the sinking (and its aftermath). Jack the Ripper has a few “Murder Trail” guided walks around the Whitechapel area, but also one million websites discussing (and re-presenting) the case in cyberspace. Simply put, the closest we can get to the actual site of the sinking of the White Star liner in 1912 is by viewing a website. Some of the millions of websites dedicated to the Titanic or Jack the Ripper are more historically accurate than others, and have obviously been constructed by diligent researchers who have a deep interest in those events.
If well researched, but amateur, websites are increasingly constituting a virtual site of dark tourism, where does that leave scholarly attempts at online engagement with histories of crime and punishment? Are visitors to the Old Bailey Online, and in future, visitors to the Digital Panopticon much more than tourists to the dark and distant past? A few clicks on the OBO can furnish us with all the grizzly details of a murder trial that ended in a death sentence – we can know the names, ages, and situations of those involved, the ordinary’s accounts even let us follow a select few to the gallows themselves. These sites are, of course, primarily academic and educational resources. But so too, are many physical sites of dark tourism that tread a fine (and not always successful) line at balancing education and entertainment.
Examples of digital dark tourism exist in a not insignificant number currently, and are set to become even more numerous in years to come. With the potential for millions of individuals to engage with such sites on a daily basis, most for only a brief period of time, perhaps the responsibility to make sure that visitors go away with an appropriate and educationally focussed message is greater that even at physical sites. After all, not only do visitors spend longer, and give more undivided attention to the presentation of material at a physical site, but there can also be interpreters and other employees present on sites to make sure that central messages are reinforced, and the appropriate tone is struck. Virtual sites of dark tourism are very different in this respect – anonymous, and unmonitored.
Should academics and heritage professionals be leading the way in creating thoughtful and appropriate virtual sites of dark tourism that simultaneously promote interest and engagement with the dark and painful past and keep the focus on information and education?
The phrase “Dark Tourism” has gained currency in the last fifteen years as a way of describing the heritage industry’s opening up of former sites of pain and punishment Some places which have come to be associated with this term were opened from the 1960s onwards: Anne Frank’s House 1960; the Slave Depot in Senegal 1978; Auschwitz 1997; the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Dome 1997; Robben Island 1999; the Australian Convict Penal Colonies 2008; Topographies of Terror 2010; and the Stasimuseum 2010. Together they are a range of places, sites and institutions representing the legacy of massacre and genocide, prisoners of war, civil and political prisons. In many ways these sites are very different, trying to illustrate different kinds of histories with narratives specific to their own distinctive history. What they have in common is that they commemorate a dark past in human affairs as ‘a way of claiming that the past has something to offer the present, be it a warning or a model’ (Olick 1999:381).
They are also, in many instances, polished commercial operations that “form a growing part of a burgeoning heritage industry” (Mistzal 2003:157). Dark tourism has been the saviour of many former prison buildings, since they are popular with the public and interest in what went on behind the prison walls is a valuable revenue-stream. Of course there is a very different feel in and around decommissioned gaols in the UK than there is in Auschwitz or in the Killing Fields of Cambodia. They should perhaps not be mentioned in the same context. The depth of horror and misery that a visitor to a concentration camp feels is incomparable to the feelings we might develop whilst walking along a Victorian prison wing.
Quite clearly, the issue this raises is whether all such tourist sites can be grouped together as the display of the unpleasant parts of history, or whether, we as academics, museum and heritage professionals, or visitor to the dark and painful past, should be attempting to spend more time measuring ‘darkness? How would we do this? For example, for most popular sites of ‘dark tourism’ would seem infinitely possible to place them on a continuum that stretches along a line from the recent to the far-past; commercial to non-profit making enterprises; mass institutions of pain and punishment to the single example; highly interpreted to naïve…
Anyone with enough money can now spend a night in gaol. The cells in Oxford prison are larger, and warmer, and more comfortable now than they were before the gaol was turned into a luxury hotel in 2006 The award-winning development renovated what was essentially a late Victorian prison into a four star hotel. Converting former gaols into hotels is a world-wide phenomena (see for example, Sweden’s largest Victorian prison, Langholmen Prison in Stockholm built in 1875; or Charles Street Jail/Suffolk County Jail in Boston, but an overnight stay in them is not cheap. There appears to be an ‘incarceration premium‘ for those who wish to experience it. The publicity blurb invokes the terms associated with imprisonment – porridge, escape, a long stretch, good behaviour, light-fingered guests, and so on – but the residents can scarcely experience the same conditions as the people who had to spend time within the prison’s walls.
Academics such as Alana Barton and Alyson Brown have discussed the prison hotels and gaol museums that are in the vanguard of the heritage movement. Across the British Isles, a number of former prisons have been re-opened as heritage centres: Kilmainham Prison in Dublin was closed in 1924 and re-opened as a museum in 1971; Beaumaris followed shortly afterwards (closed in 1878 and opened in 1974); and other places include Eden Camp Prisoner of War Museum (1949/1987); Bodmin (1916/2004); Ruthin (1976/2004); Oxford (1996/2006); York Castle (1934/2009); and Crumlin Road Belfast (1996/2010). The former Lincoln Castle Gaol is currently being redeveloped as a heritage centre, and with the next tranche of prison closures scheduled to begin in 2014, more gaol museums will surely come into being in the near future.
The websites designed to attract visitors to the prison museums often employ images and narratives about prison life of the 1880s onwards, but concentrate on the more punitive elements of incarceration (and some include anachronistic penal punishments such as the crank, or the rack, which do not belong in the period they are trying to represent): “Sit in a prison cell, hear the door slam shut and imagine the harsh conditions of Victorian prison regimes. Try on prison uniforms, imagine the horror of being set in the pillory, strapped in a restraint chair or hung in chains. Turn the crank, carry out shot drill or work the treadmill”. Dartmoor’s website has links to sections on the ‘manacles and weapons’ used by warders; illegal weapons confiscated from inmates; details of famous prisoners; and insignia and uniforms of prison staff. Indeed, in the case of these locations, some seem intent on reimagining the prison as a place of gothic horror rather than rational punishment. The themes that are emphasised are darkness, terror, violence, rather than the daily tedium of late Victorian and Edwardian prison regimes (and least of all do they describe any form of rehabilitative treatment).
The very visible growth of ‘dark tourism’ in recent years across a range of sectors, and the developing interest in such heritage amongst a number of interested parties raises a number of central questions as to the intention of ‘dark tourism’ and its uses. Is there a set of core characteristics that sites or attractions must share in order to be considered dark tourism? What role should academics be playing in shaping and promoting the presentation of the ‘dark past’? When does the presentation of ‘dark’ sites, attractions, and events stop being educational and start being exploitative? Do we even need to care?
The third Our Criminal Past network event was held at the Galleries of Justice, Nottingham on 31 January 2014, with four excellent sessions bringing together people from academia, museums, charities and prisons.
The first session on ‘Displaying Our Penal Heritage’, with presenters from the Galleries of Justice, Oxford Gaol and Beaumaris Gaol museums, got us off to a good start. Some recurring themes of the three presentations highlighted the tensions between education and entertainment (or museums and tourist attractions), and between local and national perspectives – as well as the practicalities of funding constraints. Bev Baker traced the evolution – and future plans – of prison history presentation at the Galleries of Justice since its opening in 1995, while Lisa Price talked about how the public and private sector have worked in partnership on the site of HMP Oxford (which closed as a gaol in 1996). Ceri Williams talked about the presentation of crime and prison history at Beaumaris Gaol, part of Anglesey Museums Service, and the significance of the Welsh language. Possibly the most remarkable discovery of the day was that Oxford Castle Gaol has been converted into a luxury hotel (nearly everyone wanted to go and stay). In a more serious vein, it was fascinating to learn about how the presentation of penal history at each of the museums has evolved – not always cohesively – over time; and about the pitfalls of introducing multimedia or technological aids to interpretation – devices and audio recordings can quickly become dated. Actors were perennially popular, on the other hand, but expensive.
In session 2, a couple of familiar faces presented ‘Punishment and Penality: New Directions’. Barry Godfrey introduced the Digital Panopticon project – you can look at his slides if you’re interested. Richard Ward spoke about Leicester’s Harnessing the Power of the Criminal Corpse project, and the benefits and problems for historians of collaborative and interdisciplinary research. He showed, for example, how investigation into the gibbeting of hanged criminals during the 18th and 19th centuries had fruitfully combined historians’ work with documentary evidence and mapping with archaeological material culture perspectives. But tensions could arise over different approaches to evidence. He discussed the project’s plans for a major exhibition, and questions of the best way to approach presentation for non-academic audiences.
After lunch, a session on ‘Representing and Presenting Penal and Policing Histories’ provided much food for thought. Alyson Brown discussed just how much we don’t know about the history of prison tourism, as a form of dark tourism, and highlighted how by its nature it involves viewing the ‘Other’, an essentially panoptical activity. (The earliest known tourist prison, from 1890, was actually a ship, the ‘Success’.) Alana Barton brought a criminologist’s perspective to proceedings, arguing that prison museums shouldn’t just be about the historical context, and critiquing the tendency to emphasise the exceptional (such as escapes) and neglect much more common prison experiences such as suicide and self-harm. Ian O’Donnell spoke about major gaps in the crime and penal history of the Irish Republic: firstly, trends in lethal violence; secondly, the curious history of capital punishment (the Republic didn’t have its own hangman); and thirdly, and most movingly, he challenged the Republic’s notion of itself as a ‘non-punitive’ society based on its low prison populations, by discussing the massive levels of coercive confinement in a range of non-prison institutions from psychiatric establishments to ‘mother and baby’ homes. Beth Wilburn spoke about her outreach work at the Great Manchester Police museum. The project, funded by the Tackling Knives Action Programme 2009-11, aimed to use the history of crime and policing to produce educational resources and reach young people in and break down barriers between them and the police. Beth discussed how it was difficult to evaluate the impact of this work quantitatively.
Finally, we had a wide-ranging (and impossible to summarise) roundtable session with representatives from academic history and people working with prisoners and ex-offenders today, Judith Rowbotham argued forcefully that we shouldn’t dumb down crime and penal history for the public. Jamie Bennett of Grendon Prison described the prison’s distinctive work and ethos, and their difficulties in getting funding to set up a prison archive. Chris Stacey of the charity Unlock talked about working with ex-offenders and the importance of life after prison.
We have funding for two (UK/EU) PhD students, based at the University of Liverpool, to start in February 2014.
Application deadline: Friday 10 January 2014
Studentship 1: Digital Dark Tourism
The increased availability of digital resources has brought criminal justice data within easy reach of thousands if not millions of people. This has coincided with the commercialization of decommissioned gaols, courts and police stations. Gaol Museums often have highly visual publicity and online material. This thesis will examine the presentation of criminal justice history in museums and in printed material. It will explore the public interaction with these forms, and the motivations of the museum and heritage managers in digitizing, publicizing, and presenting former penal sites.
Studentship 2: Sentencing at the Old Bailey 1780-1880
This thesis on “Sentencing factors and disposals” will explore and examine all of the contextual linked-data on the life-course of the people sentenced to imprisonment at the Old Bailey. There are a variety of sentencing factors that must be taken into consideration when sentencing offenders: severity of the offence, whether the case is heard on indictment, and so on. There are also a number of other factors which may have played a part – the perceived social status of the defendant, the number of previous convictions, the perceived status of the complainant, and so on. This thesis will use data retrieved from a number of online digital sources to investigate the overt and hidden factors that may have influenced whether a convicted felon was found not-guilty, imprisoned or transported.