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.