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?