Between 16th and 21st July 2017, Dr Will Pooley (The University of Bristol), recipient of a British Academy Rising Star Public Engagement Award, convened a conference on ‘Creative Histories’ at the Clifton Pavillion, Bristol Zoo Gardens. Amidst a highly diverse programme, there were a number of panels on the history of crime, including a paper by Digital Panopticon Research Associate, Dr Lucy Williams (The University of Liverpool) and journalist and crime historian, Nell Derby (The University of Northampton).
Lucy’s paper, ‘Fact or Fiction?: Creating Convict Lives with the Digital Panopticon’ explored the ethical issues of representation associated with the choices that historians make when they narrate the lives of convicts discovered in the Digital Panopticon website. For example, when using legal and prison records, how do historians mitigate against the potential distortions of placing an individual’s criminal activities at the centre of their life story? To illustrate her point Lucy used the example of nineteenth century convict, Mary Palmer, a single mother who in her state of destitution wounded her three year old daughter. Mary served a sentence for her crime but managed to re-marry after her imprisonment. Despite the Digital Panopticon’s accumulation of historical records, we are still left with a mystery. Who was Mary Palmer? A victim of the intolerant, patriarchal values of Victorian society or a skilled manipulator, capable of moments of cold, calculated cruelty?
The ‘Creative Histories’ conference also offered a screening and discussion of the Roar Film, Death or Liberty (2015). This film traces the transnational history of diasporic radical politics as well as confronting colonialism’s devastating impact on Australian Aboriginal communities. A dramatised documentary, Death or Liberty, tells the individual life histories of political radicals, rebels and dissenters from England, Ireland, Wales and Canada who were transported to Australia by the British government between 1793 and 1867. It features a soundtrack of eighteenth and nineteenth century radical folk songs performed by Billy Bragg, Mick Thomas and Lisa O’Neill. Based on Monash University academic, Dr Tony Moore’s book of the same name, the film would be of interest to all those who study the complex consequences of British imperialism in Australia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.