Rhiannon Pickin

Experiencing Crime and Punishment: Emotions, Perceptions and Reponses to Crime and Penal Heritage in Courtroom and Prison Museums 

Photograph of the Ripon Prison and Police Museum. The original building was built in 1816 and was used for this purpose until 1878. From 1887 until 1956 the building was used as the Police Station for Ripon. The museum first opened in 1984 and reopened in 2004 following refurbishment. With kind permission from Ripon Museum Trust
Photograph of the Ripon Prison and Police Museum. The original building was built in 1816 and was used for this purpose until 1878. From 1887 until 1956 the building was used as the Police Station for Ripon. The museum first opened in 1984 and reopened in 2004 following refurbishment. With kind permission from Ripon Museum Trust

There are many historical prisons and courthouses that now house museums of crime and punishment. In these emotionally charged spaces the past experiences of historical criminals are presented to the public. These sites are known as ‘dark tourism’ sites because they are associated with death and suffering. Stone and Sharpley (2008) argue that sites of dark tourism allow us to explore our curiosity with these traumatic concepts in contemporary society through historical events. However, within these sites there are tensions between a desire to understand past emotional experiences, and a desire to evoke emotion in the present-day museum visitor. This research will investigate how crime and punishment museums present this history to understand the rationale for these curatorial choices. It will also explore visitors’ emotional responses to the museum displays and how these two different views relate. It will examine the prospects for presenting alternative interpretations of this history within the museums. The Nottingham Galleries of Justice Museum, Ripon Museums and the York Castle Museum have been selected as case studies because all three sites present this history in former prisons or courthouses.

Peter Stearns and Carol Stearns (1985), propose that emotions are affected by societal change, therefore making emotions a worthy topic of historical analysis. These approaches pose a challenge for museums of crime and punishment because past methods of incarceration evoke negative responses in the modern day, which has an impact on the way these museums present this history to the public. In addition to this, William Reddy (2001) has stated that the history of emotions can place the ‘individual’ back into history. Therefore this method of historical analysis may be able to challenge the dominant narratives presented in these museums that ostracise prisoner experiences, as Jacqueline Wilson (2008) has argued. This links to Alana Barton and Alyson Brown’s (2012) statement that prison museums do not challenge popular ideologies about the prison because they are concerned about the profits made from entrance fees and therefore need to make the history accessible to the public.

Interviews will be conducted with museum staff inviting them to reflect on their professional practice using oral history methods. In light of studies acknowledging the possibility of a disconnect between the ideas of museum staff and visitors, these will be complemented by visitor questionnaires and focus groups which will be used to explore individual and collective responses to the history presented at these sites. There will also be some discussion about how historical criminal experiences can be understood through analysing historical sources, such as court reports and prison records, through the history of emotions.

The research will contribute to the museums’ ongoing aim of striking a balance between presenting the history of crime and punishment in its true form and sanitising it to make it more palatable to visitors. It is hoped this will have an impact on the heritage sector by making more explicit links between visitors’ emotional responses to exhibits and the most appropriate ways to respond to these through curation.

Biography

This research is a culmination of several disciplines that I was first introduced to at undergraduate level. I studied Archaeology and History (BA) at the University of Sheffield, where I developed my knowledge of public history and heritage studies by participating in research projects with Museums Sheffield (including ‘Precious Cargo’: http://www.museums-sheffield.org.uk/about/projects-and-outreach/archive/precious-cargo and ‘Art and Craft in Sheffield: Our History in 100 Objects’: http://ah.group.shef.ac.uk/Newsletter/community-project-with-museums-sheffield/) and Sheffield Manor Lodge (this was an independent research project funded through the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/sure/301). For my undergraduate dissertation I also used oral history methodologies to understand the representation of crime and punishment at sites of dark tourism. This developed my understanding of public history and crime and punishment history, which also influenced the design of my PhD research.

After completing my degree I was awarded a Benefactors’ Scholarship by the University of Sheffield to study Early Modern History (MA). During this year I continued to develop my previous research interests as well as taking credited modules in public history, digital humanities and early modern understandings of the body, senses and emotions. This all aided my dissertation project, which examined the rationale behind the representation of history and emotions in museums of crime and punishment. This became the basis for my current PhD research. I am a member of the ‘Crime and Punishment Collections’ (https://capcollections.wordpress.com/) and ‘Our Criminal Past’ (http://www.leedsbeckett.ac.uk/ourcriminalpast/) research networks while also working on the social media feed for the ‘Our Criminal Past’ (@ourcriminalpast) network alongside both of my supervisors.

Supervisors: Dr. Heather Shore, Leeds Beckett University and Dr. Helen Johnston, University of Hull.

Twitter: @RhiannonPickin

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