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Prix Herman Diederiks/Herman Diederiks Prize

Suffering on Display

An Argument for Historical Nuance in British Prison Museums
Dan Johnson et Rhiannon Pickin
p. 5-26


En favorisant des expositions fortement axées sur la réforme pénale, les musées pénitentiaires britanniques simplifient souvent à l’excès les questions sociales et culturelles complexes liées aux évolutions de la criminalité. Cette omission de faits historiques peut influer sur l’interprétation des expériences des détenus. La plupart des études menées sur les musées pénitentiaires se sont concentrées sur cette question, mais n’ont pas encore examiné les récits spécifiques des prisonniers historiques qui sont présentés sous forme de reconstitutions en costume. Cet article cherche à remédier à cela par une analyse des interprétations problématiques des femmes détenues, du personnel pénitentiaire et des interactions anachroniques entre les individus historiques de deux musées : le National Justice Museum à Nottingham et le York Castle Museum. L’article examine comment certains personnages sont représentés sur les sites et comment leurs caractérisations s’écartent de l’histoire. Il soutient que le fait de négliger les faits historiques centraux de ces sites peut fausser gravement la représentation des individus et des affaires de l’époque.

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  • 1 York Castle Gaol — Mary Burgan Reference Document, York Castle Museum (2009, p. 1).

1In 1705, Mary Burgan was sentenced to death at the York Crown Court for murdering her illegitimate child. Whilst awaiting trial at the York Castle Gaol she became pregnant, successfully “pleaded the belly” and consequently escaped the death penalty.1 The story of Mary Burgan is one of eight that visitors encounter whilst wandering the cells and corridors of the Prison Exhibition at York Castle Museum. Although the interpretation of Burgan’s story, told through a recording of an actor playing Mary that is projected on the back of a cell wall, is emotive, entertaining, and highlights wider historical issues such as escaping the gallows by pleading the belly, the interpretation lacks nuance and contextualisation. This leads to a number of ethical dilemmas as the suffering on display is turned into a spectacle.

  • 2 York Castle Prison Exhibition, Mary Burgan Projection (visited 29 June 2017).
  • 3 Ibid.
  • 4 See Jackson (1996).

2One of the main ethical dilemmas in the interpretation of Burgan is the discussion, or lack thereof, of the circumstances of her pregnancy in prison. Although there is minimal primary source material, the son’s name, Thomas, and the time he spent in the prison following his mother’s release has led the museum to believe that the turnkey was the father.2 In the narrative reconstruction, Burgan is thankful to her son her saving her life, but is also dissatisfied with societal constructs that led to her being accused of her crime. She comments upon how it was a “Daft way of doing things, you have a baby out of wedlock and it dies, every beggar in the neighbourhood is standing up in court to call you a killer. Let the turnkey father another on you while you’re waiting to hang, and odds are, you live.”3 This dialogue raises potential ethical questions surrounding the assumptions that are made about her character, including the supposed innocence, the act of pleading the belly and the extent to which her sexual involvement with the gaoler was consensual. Is there such a case where this could be consensual? Considering many were still executed after giving birth, was pleading the belly a viable tactic?4 What does this say about the power dynamic of the turnkey, who is interpreted as corrupt and a criminal himself, and the women in his care? This attempt at creating female prisoner agency may seem progressive, but it comes at the cost of the omission of historical facts.

  • 5 Hodgkinson, Urquhart (2017, p. 578).

3The lack of context and nuance in this digital representation of Burgan leads to ethical dilemmas when we look deeper into the difficult history of suffering on display, but this is not as simple as a case of inadequate research on the part of the York Castle Museum. Dark tourism’s commodification of death and suffering on display and the realities of underfunded museum practice also contribute to the ethically questionable interpretation that can be identified in this case. The reimagined interpretations of Mary Burgan, and the other historic individuals on display at the York Castle Museum, are not unique. Historians and criminologists have often criticised prison museums for presenting sanitised and simplified interpretations that do not allow for critical reflection of the historical narrative.5

  • 6 Stone, Sharpley (2008, p. 574).
  • 7 Sharpley, Stone (2009, p. 127).
  • 8 Stone, Sharpley (2008, p. 577).
  • 9 Stone (2006, p. 151).
  • 10 See Stone, Sharpley (2008, p. 574); Barton, Brown (2012, p. 44-48).

4The study of prison museums has been a topic for considerable discussion amongst dark tourism scholars. For example, Philip Stone and Richard Sharpley describe sites of dark tourism as places that are linked to death, violence, disaster or suffering.6 They argue that many sites seek to create safe, comfortable and accessible meanings towards specific tragic events in history to make these locations more visitor friendly, and hence easily accessible.7 They have also coined the term “dark fun factories” for sites that focus on entertainment rather than aiming to present a more sombre interpretation of the history related to them.8 Stone has also proposed a model for understanding different types of dark tourism sites, in which the “darker”, or more serious sites lie at one end of the dark tourism spectrum, whilst “lighter”, or more entertainment-focused sites are situated at the other.9Prison museums are considered to be in the middle of the spectrum due to their displays incorporating both “dark” and “light” interpretations of the history.10 This is due to the sites dealing with the suffering of criminals, who are understood to be deserving or undeserving of the punishments they received.

  • 11 Strange, Kempa (2003).
  • 12 Strange, Kempa (2003, p. 388).
  • 13 Strange, Kempa (2003, p. 401).
  • 14 Strange, Kempa (2003, p. 402).

5Researchers such as Carolyn Strange and Michel Kempa have also examined prison museums as dark tourism sites. Their research on the Alcatraz prison museum in the United States of America, and Robben Island prison museum in South Africa, involved conducting staff interviews as well as exit visitor questionnaires.11 They argue that different elements of Stone’s concept of “dark” and “light” dark tourism co-exist at penal tourism sites, which results in a layering of meaning as well as the presence of conflicting historical narratives and interpretations.12 Within their work they discuss the ethical issues that such sites have to consider when interpreting their histories to the public. This includes feelings of responsibility from the staff to not present the history in sensational ways that trivialise or commodify the history.13 They also acknowledge how ticket sales are important for these sites, and so they understand why prison museums commodify the history, but they emphasise that the sites still have the capacity to ask significant questions about modern prisons.14

  • 15 Wilson (2008, p. 1).
  • 16 Wilson (2008, p. 1, 69).
  • 17 Ibid.
  • 18 Piché, Walby (2010, p. 570-581).
  • 19 Walby, Piché (2011, p. 451).
  • 20 Ibid.

6The commodification of prison history has also been explored by Jacqueline   Z. Wilson, who argues in her work that Australian prison sites obscure the historical narratives and omit certain representations of prisoner experiences.15 This “othering” of the prisoners is described as an “unavoidable consequence of their criminal status.”16She emphasises the importance of including these prison narratives in the museums so that the “official” histories presented at the sites can be challenged.17 This idea of “othering” has also been explored by Justin Piché and Kevin Walby, who have contended that tours of carceral spaces contribute to the degradation of prisoners.18 Whilst this argument has been made with reference to operational prisons, Piché and Walby have also examined Canadian prison museums, which also create “[…] social distance between the punished and the penal spectator.”19 They relate this to the narratives and penal relics that are in place within these institutions that continue to perpetuate the idea that penal reform led to positive change over time within the prison system.20 Very little research has been conducted on prison museums in the United Kingdom, which this article will seek to remedy.

  • 21 Barton, Brown (2012, p. 44).
  • 22 Ibid.
  • 23 Ibid.
  • 24 Barton, Brown (2015, p. 237).

7Researchers including Alana Barton and Alyson Brown, and Sarah Hodgkinson and Diane Urquhart have spearheaded the critique of UK prison museums. Taking influence from Stone’s dark tourism spectrum, Barton and Brown use the term “edutainment” to describe how these museums encompass both educational and entertainment-led interpretations of the history.21 This is representative of the sites’ ambitions to create a comfortable and accessible learning environment, which Stone and Sharpley have also noted in their dark tourism research.22 By doing this, the museums do not challenge popular preconceptions and stereotypes about the historical and modern prison system, most notably this narrative of prison reform.23 Barton and Brown argue that these sites have the responsibility and potential to interpret this history in a more political manner, but they neglect to do this due to funding concerns and the need to generate revenue.24

  • 25 Hodgkinson, Urquhart (2017, p. 579).
  • 26 Ibid.
  • 27 Hodgkinson, Urquhart (2017, p. 41-47).
  • 28 Ibid.

8From their study on the Derby Gaol and the Galleries of Justice Museum in Nottingham (now the National Justice Museum), Hodgkinson and Urquhart argue that these sites operate more often as “lighter” dark tourism sites.25 From visiting these sites, they questioned why the history is presented in this way, when at other sites of dark tourism these methods would be wholly unsuitable.26 “Lighter” dark tourism sites, such as the London Dungeons, are argued to satisfy the curiosity of visitors rather than presenting historical accuracies.27Hodgkinson and Urquhart also compare Michael Foucault’s concept of “Punishment-as-Spectacle” to the ways in which visitors interact with sites of penal heritage.28

9By taking influence from the literature, this article argues that it is important to emphasise the ethical responsibilities these museums have to present real-life historical individuals accurately and sensitively. This reflects the statement made by the Museums Association in 2013 on the purpose of museums within society:

  • 29 Museums Association (2013, p. 3).

Museums hold a unique position of being trusted, which is particularly important given the perceived lack of trusted organisations in society such as the government and the media. Both of these are seen as biased and operating under agendas. Members of the public who took part, see museums as the guardians of factual information and as presenting all sides of the story.29

10The inherent perception of museum trustworthiness reflects the social responsibility museums have to present historical facts to the public. Misrepresenting the experiences of historical individuals within prison museums betrays these responsibilities.

  • 30 The National Justice Museum is the former Nottingham Galleries of Justice. The name was changed a (...)

11This article builds upon previous studies through conducting in-depth analysis into the historical documents that have informed the history that is on display at two case museums. We examine the representations of individuals in the York Castle Museum and the National Justice Museum in Nottingham to argue that the histories presented in prison museums should not be sanitised and simplified.30The York Castle Museum and the National Justice Museum were chosen as British case studies because both museums are housed in historic prison buildings, in which the prisoners and their keepers are presented to the public.

12The York Castle Museum is housed in the eighteenth-century debtor’s and women’s prison in the city centre of York. Although the museum is renowned for its large social history collections and reconstruction of a Victorian street, it also houses an exhibition about the site’s eighteenth and nineteenth-century prison history. The first half of the exhibition houses eight projections of prison narratives on the back of cell walls, while the second half of the exhibition includes text and video that explore the wider history of the site. The exhibition is also paired with a website, where the museum describes prison life as “a place to hold men and women awaiting their trial or punishment. If you survived the terrible conditions there were three ways out; be found ‘not guilty’ and released, be transported overseas as convict labour… or the gallows.”31 Although this text is not included in the exhibition, the prison is still portrayed as dark, dungeon-like, and a place of significant suffering.

13While the York Castle Museum has only one exhibition dedicated to the history of crime and punishment, the National Justice Museum, located in Nottingham’s historic Shire Hall, houses ten exhibitions exploring local and national histories of crime and punishment. These include the historic courtroom, where visitors may take part in a mock trial, the Capital Punishment Exhibition, and a large timeline exhibition on prison reform, which begins with the work of the penal reformer John Howard and ends with a text panel on the 2016 Birmingham Prison riot. The narrative of penal reform can be identified across all of the exhibitions. Ann Castledine is located in the punishments exhibition, surrounded by objects of corporal punishment, such as the pillory, scold’s bridle, and gibbet. The prison surgeon, Isaac Massey, presents his narrative to visitors through live interpretation in the women’s cell, and John Howard and Elizabeth Fry argue about who made the greatest impact on prison reform in the Prison Reform Exhibition.

14At both case study sites these characterisations are based upon historical evidence that has been used to influence the costumed interpreters’ scripts. Each of these characters are presented in the first-person narrative, meaning that the museums can give voice and agency to the individuals whose own words were rarely documented. However, this lack of representation in the historical record, combined with the draw of dark tourism, leads to these museums presenting the prisoners in ways that sensationalise them and the crimes they committed. Regardless of their interpretation, all of the “characters” were imprisoned or worked at these sites during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

15This article has been informed by research compiled from site visits, so to witness first-hand how the characters are incorporated into the displays. The historical source materials relating to these individuals, which are housed either in the museums or within local, national and digital archives, have been compared to the museum interpretations to understand which aspects of the original documents have been included or omitted from the displays. These narratives may play a significant part in shaping public attitudes towards crime and punishment, past and present, and so this article upholds the argument that a more nuanced interpretation needs to be taken into account by the museums in future exhibitions and displays. Overall, the article makes the case for a more nuanced narrative than is currently on display by highlighting pertinent aspects of the individual cases that are misrepresented. However, it recognises that there are other factors involved in museum interpretation, beyond a strict retelling of the history. With the addition of a more nuanced approach to the interpretation, the cases may become more historically accurate whilst maintaining the broader messages that the museums seek to put forward to their visitors.

16This article examines three problematic themes of prisoner narratives: representations of women in prison, interpretations of prison staff, and the anachronistic interactions between historical individuals. It compares the representation of those people presented in the displays to historical records and academic crime history literature. In doing so, it questions how crime and penal heritage is interpreted by the museums and why the individuals are presented in the ways they are. By comparing the primary source material to the museum representations, historians can identify where fact meets fiction within these interpretations and gives rise to the argument for more historical nuance in the museum displays. This article argues that there is scope for more complex representations of the real-life individuals on display, whilst also acknowledging the challenges faced by museum institutions.

Female Prisoners

  • 32 See Jenkin (2015); Palk (2001).

17The interpretation of female prisoners is morally problematic at both museums. Most of the female prisoners on display were accused of either murdering their children or murdering their husbands. This focus on the “sensational murderess” or “the mad woman” is even more problematic when juxtaposed with the presentation of male prisoners. This is because men are generally presented as having committed crimes against property (poaching, theft, larceny) to feed their starving families during a time of income inequality before social welfare. This is despite most women during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries finding themselves before the courts for committing larceny.32 This section assesses two case studies, Ann Castledine who is presented at the National Justice Museum, and Elizabeth Boardingham whose character is interpreted within the York Castle Prison Exhibition. Both case studies demonstrate common themes in the ways that women are interpreted within prison museums.

  • 33 York Castle Gaol — Elizabeth Boardingham Reference Document, York Castle Museum (2009, p.  1).
  • 34 Ibid.
  • 35 Ibid.
  • 36 Ibid.
  • 37 Ibid.

18On 20 March 1776, Elizabeth Boardingham of Flamborough was the last woman in Yorkshire to be burned at the stake.33 A reference document from 2009 that influenced the interpretation of Boardingham provides a summary of her story, a description of her person and character, and a suggestion of topics for the two-minute audio-visual monologue that is on display in one of the cells. In addition to these suggestions are excerpts from primary sources that are used to provide support for the narrative. The reference document explains that she was born around 1742, and by 1775, she was married to a convicted smuggler, John Boardingham, and had five children.34 Following John’s release from gaol in 1775, Elizabeth left for Lincolnshire with her lover, Thomas Aikney.35 It is unclear when the affair began, but Thomas had stated in court that after being repeatedly pressed by Elizabeth to murder John, he suggested they elope instead.36 After about three months away, Elizabeth returned, and eight days later John was murdered in the street outside of their home.37 Aikney was sentenced to be hanged and Boardingham to be burned at the stake.

  • 38 Dolan (1992, p. 317).
  • 39 York Castle Prison Exhibition, Elizabeth Boardingham Projection (visited 29 June 2017).
  • 40 Ibid.
  • 41 Leeds Intelligencer (26 March 1776).
  • 42 Ibid.
  • 43 Ibid.

19In the museum video, Boardingham laments the injustice of her and Aikney’s sentences. In the eighteenth century, if a woman murdered her husband, the act was considered petty treason.38 For this reason, Boardingham’s sentence was much more severe than Aikney’s. She states: “Five children I brought that spineless little worm. And I knew him for the smuggler he was and not a very good one neither, or he wouldn’t have been locked up in here! And if he hadn’t been locked up I’d never have fallen for Thomas Aikney and none of this would have happened.”39 Although she is defiant against the justice system, she adamantly proclaims that she had nothing to do with her husband’s murder. The video makes it clear that the anger expressed by Boardingham is not directed solely at the injustices of society, but at men in general, as she states in her closing line: “Well here’s what I say, be I bound for Hell, Heaven, or Halifax, I’m better off without men!”40 This is the point in the video where the interpretation diverts from the archive. In an article from the Leeds Intelligencer, an article describes the crime and the evidence presented in court that led to the guilty verdict. Boardingham and Aikney’s executions drew one of the largest crowds at the city’s Tyburn at that point in history.41 Although Aikney is described as having behaved penitently in his final moments, Elizabeth Boardingham “did not discover the least signs of contrition, and behaved, as at her trial, and after she had received sentence, with a degree of boldness and unconcern, that shocked all who saw her, declaring to the last that she was not privy to Aikney’s intention of murdering her husband.”42 The article continues: “Just before the above unhappy persons were turned off, they shook hands and saluted each other.”43 Here, Boardingham is bold and angry, but she is not angry at Aikney, or men in general, making the last half of the video completely false.

  • 44 Zedner (1991, p. 40).

20By depicting her as a “man-hating woman” the video also falls into problematic stereotypes of female gender roles. Lucia Zedner explains that when a woman committed a crime in the nineteenth century they also betrayed their social role as a moral figure, resulting in negative imagery in media portrayals.44 Judging by this video interpretation within the museum, this Victorian stereotype has pervaded through into the twenty-first century. This reliance on common stereotypes to present historic female prisoners raises ethical questions in the twenty-first century that could be remedied by adding a degree of nuance to the interpretation.

  • 45 Interview with the Learning and Access Manager at the National Justice Museum, interviewed by D.  (...)
  • 46 Robinson (2015, p. 111).
  • 47 National Justice Museum, Ann Castledine Video (date visited 18 January 2018).

21The interpretation of Ann Castledine at the National Justice Museum is another example of a sanitised yet sensational interpretation of the “the female murderess”. In a “Horrible Histories” style video in the punishment exhibition at the National Justice Museum, Castledine is seen swinging a noose around her neck while telling the audience about her execution in 1784.45 The success of franchises such as Horrible Histories, a UK book and television series that presents history to child audiences, have been argued to be “inextricably connected to narratives of progress”, as the past is seen as a “repository of ‘horrors’ where the gruesome nature of the past dramatically counterpoints the civilisation of the present.”46 In this video, Castledine’s crime is simply referenced as murder, with the entire video focusing on her execution. She states that she was excited to be publicly hanged and dissected and was thrilled that she had gained so much attention: “Mum always said I would get my fifteen minutes of fame... I felt like a celebrity... Ah, my love, you know he literally stole my heart.”47

  • 48 Wilson (1909).
  • 49 Wilson (1909, p. 4).
  • 50 Ibid.
  • 51 Nottinghamshire Guardian (7 August 1851).
  • 52 Ibid.
  • 53 Ibid.
  • 54 Ibid.

22This information is based on the only account of Castledine’s crime and execution, from the Gallows Hill Remembrancer, which is quoted in the Nottingham Date Book, a primary source that the museum possess a copy of. The Gallows Hill Remembrancer was published locally to Nottingham in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and contains a list of all of the individuals who were executed within the city.48 Ann Castledine is featured in this book, in its various editions, with the information about her case supposedly having been taken from broadsides and the Last Accounts, or even gleaned from hearsay that would have originated from the time of her execution. It mentions that Castledine became pregnant by her lover, and then gave birth to a daughter, whom she suffocated before burying the body.49 It was reported that a few days after the murder she dug up the body and sewed it into her mattress, where it was found soon afterwards.50 She was tried and found guilty of committing “the wilful murder of her child” at the Shire Hall in Nottingham in 1784 and was executed at the gallows hill in Nottingham.51 After the execution took place her body was taken back to the Shire Hall, where she was publicly dissected.52 Her body was then attached to a board and put on display outside of the building, but was later removed to a doctor in Derby due to the crowds of people who abused her remains.53 It is written that a mysterious person, supposedly her “seducer”, visited the body in Derby where he “took up her heart, kissed it, squeezed a drop of blood from it upon his handkerchief, and rode away.”54

  • 55 See Bennet (2016, p. 159) and Cox (2014, p. 109).
  • 56 Jackson (2002).

23The interpretation in the museum display omits several facts from this case. For instance, it states that she committed murder, rather than specifying infanticide, which is likely to be an effect of trying to make the interpretation more family-friendly. Her character is also happy to have been executed and dissected, thereby distorting the history as there is no historical evidence to suggest that she would have been glad at this prospect. Historians who have examined post-mortem criminal dissection, including Rachel Bennett and David Cox, argue that there was a fear of dissection because of the important religious belief at the time that required the body to be buried in consecrated ground.55 It is clear therefore that this representation of Castledine is inaccurate and unethical, as it commodifies this history by degrading her experiences for the sole purpose of being accessible and entertaining. This attempt to omit certain facts about the history to make it more family-friendly also takes away any opportunity to discuss the complex issues surrounding infanticide in the past.56

24The representation of female incarceration is one-sided, with the museums choosing sensational case studies that reflect and uphold gender stereotypes past and present. There are many discussions that could be had from the primary sources that the museums fail to engage with. This includes issues concerning mental health, the impact of having a child out of wedlock, and the widely-held social standards that affected the lives of women during these periods. Stereotypes that affect historical prison narratives can also be identified from the ways in which prison staff are presented in the displays.

Prison Staff

25Interpretations of prison staff at these museums are affected by widely accepted narratives of crime and penal history. This can be seen in the representations of both eighteenth and nineteenth-century prison staff at the two museums, based on real-life individuals who worked at these sites when they were operational prisons. At the sites, eighteenth-century staff are often interpreted as being abusive and treating prisoners inhumanely, whereas nineteenth-century staff are strict and methodical in their running of the prison, in this way they represent the Victorian prison reforms. Abuses of the prisoners are presented in both characterisations however, as this feeds into stereotypical narratives of the criminal justice system. This includes the case of the turnkey Thomas Ward at York Castle Museum, and surgeon Isaac Massey at the National Justice Museum. Presenting a largely negative view of the prison staff upholds common preconceptions of the past and present prison system, which has potential ramifications on modern views of these penal institutions.

  • 57 York Castle Prison, Keepers and Prisoners: Turnkey Thomas Ward, (...)
  • 58 York Castle Gaol — Thomas Ward Reference Document, York Castle Museum (2009, p. 1).

26The eighteenth-century stereotype of prison staff as evil abusers of power is exemplified through the interpretation of the Turnkey, Thomas Ward, at the York Castle Museum. On the accompanying website for the York Castle Prison Exhibition, an introduction to Ward states that “Not all the crooks were behind bars! Thomas Ward, the Turnkey — responsible for the Prison’s daily running — was a bully and an extortionist, forcing prisoners to buy food and drink at inflated prices from him. Matters came to a head in 1709 when prisoners signed a petition against his ‘inhumane and unchristian’ behaviour. Would his career survive…?”57 In the exhibition, a video projection describes that Ward’s career did survive and, in fact, thrived after the 1709 petition. He was promoted to become the gaoler from 1718 to 1726, demonstrating that he may have proven to be more exceptional than presented in the museum, and may have held a degree of political influence.58

  • 59 Ibid.
  • 60 Ibid.
  • 61 Male, 46, York Castle Museum visitor interviews, interviewed by R. Pickin.
  • 62 Female, 61, York Castle Museum visitor interviews, interviewed by R. Pickin.

27The reference document for Ward admits that much of his life is unknown, however, it is known that he advanced from turnkey to gaoler, and that in 1718 he appealed to the county of York to apprentice the 13 year old Thomas Burgan, son of ex-prisoner Mary Burgan.59 Though there is no official documentation, Ward is the suspected father of Thomas Burgan.60 This information, presented through the interpretations of both Thomas Ward and Mary Burgan, introduces a complicated discussion about sex in prison. The interpretation of Ward as a criminal and abuser of power persuades museum visitors to side with the plight of the prisoners in the exhibition. The video display of Ward is the first character interpretation that visitors engage with, where they see him bragging about his cruelty towards prisoners. Together with the display of Mary Burgan’s character, the negative interpretation of Ward is highly problematic as it suggests to visitors that Thomas Burgan was the product of rape. From a visitor study that was conducted at York Castle Museum, it was revealed that visitors do make this link between Thomas Ward and Mary Burgan, as those who were interviewed at the site made reference to these characters when discussing their experience of the Prison Exhibition. They specifically made reference to “[…] the girl who was pregnant by the bloke with the keys and she was pleading for the belly or whatever it was, that was interesting, [the] shenanigans were going on…”61 In addition, they commented upon how Thomas Ward “[…] was a piece of work which you would tend to get wouldn’t you? People like that, [it] would be very difficult not to abuse your power…”62

  • 63 Turner, Peters (2015, p. 77).
  • 64 Barton, Brown (2015, p. 246).

28The York Castle Prison Exhibition remains vague in its interpretations and leaves visitors to put the pieces of the story together themselves. Although museums sometimes use non-specific or inferred interpretations to encourage visitors to think for themselves, this laissez-faire approach to the difficult case involving the sexual abuse of a female prisoner becomes problematic in the context of current affairs in the twenty-first century. Instead of discussing relevant and complex topics about consent in prison and power relations between prisoners and their keepers, the museum presents a vague stereotype of a cruel turnkey. Interpretation through performance in prison museums “constantly embeds the structures of dominance and subjugation that shape our understanding of the penal past.”63 In doing this, the museum neglectfully leaves visitors with more questions than answers surrounding the difficult topics that arise without any nuance or complexity. These narratives of the eighteenth-century turnkeys are connected to commonplace ideas of this period of history. Representations of nineteenth-century prison staff are also affected by “penal progression narratives” that dominate popular understandings of this history, as is the case for Dr Isaac Massey at the Nottingham National Justice Museum.64

29At the National Justice Museum, the medical treatment of prisoners is explored through the character of Isaac Massey, who was surgeon at the gaol during the mid-nineteenth century. During the daytime tour of the National Justice Museum, the character speaks to visitors within the Women’s Cell area of the museum, as the presence of the baths provides a well-suited backdrop for the costumed interpreter to discuss the role and responsibilities of the surgeon in ensuring that the prison was clean and hygienic. He discusses his day-to-day activities, which included welcoming new convicts into the prison, providing suitable facilities for them to be bathed in upon arrival, as well as tending to sick prisoners.

  • 65 See Royal College of Surgeons (2012).
  • 66 Ibid.
  • 67 The Lancet (8 March 1851).
  • 68 See London Medical Gazette: Or, Journal of Practical Medicine, (Volume 30, 1842), Nottingham Revi (...)
  • 69 Surgeon’s reports of the Nottingham County Gaol, Nottinghamshire Archives, Accession numbers: C/Q (...)

30The real Isaac Massey was a surgeon at the Nottingham County Gaol from 1852 until the 1880s. Born in Thrumpton, Nottinghamshire around 1810, he studied medicine in London and Paris before setting up practices in London and then Nottingham.65 He worked at the Nottingham Union Hospital as well as the County Gaol and the South Notts Regiment of Yeomanry Cavalry as the Surgeon Major.66 His name is attached to numerous medical articles, including one he wrote on perfecting the medical procedure of lithotrity, which was a surgical procedure that broke down calcium stones in the bladder.67 He is mentioned in numerous newspaper reports, some of which he wrote calling for medical reform, or others in which he gave evidence in particularly high profile court cases.68 His experience of working as the gaol surgeon have been preserved in the form of the reports he wrote on the prison and the prisoners within it, which can be found at the Nottinghamshire Archives within the prison records.69

  • 70 Hardy (1995, p. 59).

31These were reports that the surgeon had to supply to the court for each Quarter and Assize session that took place within the Shire Hall in Nottingham, in accordance to the 1858 Medical Act, which also specified that the surgeon should visit the prison to inspect the health of the prisoners at least twice a week.70 As well as a general report on the condition of the prison, the number of sick prisoners was mentioned in a number of his writings. These notes usually follow a pattern, with certain phrases being repeated throughout the reports, as is often the case with documents of this nature. However, this source shows how Massey interacted with and treated the prisoners, with his descriptions of the prison environment providing an insight into mid-nineteenth-century prison spaces. Several accounts detail how he sought to remedy the conditions within the prison:

  • 71 Surgeon’s reports of the Nottingham County Gaol, Easter Sessions 29 June 1857, Nottinghamshire Ar (...)

Some of the drains in different parts of the prison found offensive have been opened; a large quantity of refuse matters with which they had become blocked up remain; and in order to prevent a similar occurrence... they have been provided with proper receptacles for the accumulation and removal of dirt with touch taps attached to them.71

  • 72 Surgeon’s reports of the Nottingham County Gaol, Michaelmas Sessions 15 October 1866, Nottinghams (...)

32He also stated that “Mary Atkinson [was] employed to keep drainage and sanitation in check in the prison. Dry earth rather than water. Offensive smells coming from drains — has been remedied thanks to the alteration.”72 From these writings, as well as his call for improved prison conditions within his published works, it is clear that Massey felt strongly about this issue. Within these reports, Massy also mentions prisoners who were experiencing painful symptoms from diseases they contracted during their incarceration, or from pre-existing medical conditions. This includes those who required his surgical knowledge to alleviate the pain:

  • 73 Surgeon’s reports of the Nottingham County Gaol, Michaelmas Sessions 5 April 1858, Nottinghamshir (...)

“[…] the prisoner (Edward Birkenshaw) when received into the gaol was suffering from a calculus in his bladder of more than two years duration, since his admission he has undergone the operation of lithotrity — by which means he has been cured, and has taken his trial at the Lent assizes and is now waiting to be removed under sentence of transportation.”73

  • 74 Ibid.

33Such a report is highly useful for understanding how prisoners benefited from the specific expertise of different surgeons, although it is clear that he mentioned this procedure to indicate how valuable he was to the county gaol. There are also other entries about women who gave birth in the prison, how certain prisoners were quarantined if they showed signs of illness, as well as how illness spread through Victorian prisons.74

  • 75 Allison (2016, p. 3).
  • 76 Ibid.
  • 77 Black, James (1993, p. 14).

34Detailed information about Massey’s experiences of working within the prison was compiled leading up to the redevelopment of the museum in May 2017. However, the complexities of his work at the prison, and the specific effects he had on the site were not referenced in the costumed interpretation, which mostly focuses on general narratives of Victorian prison reforms. This is predominantly concentrated on improvements made to prison hygiene and the act of sending insane prisoners to the local asylum. The fact that very little of the research was used is understandable in some respect as the amount of time that the costumed interpreters have with visitors to relay this wealth of information to them in an entertaining way can cause issues. It is understandable that costumed interpretation can and should be used to engage and entertain visitors to heritage sites as a vehicle through which accurate research and artefacts can be presented to the public.75 This assertion made by David Allison on the subject of living history also states however that museum sites have an obligation to present the right stories.76 This idea of the “right” story may differ between those who work at the sites and those studying it, as a decision has been made to focus on this progression narrative. This was the intention of the museum developers since the National Justice Museum was first designed as the Galleries of Justice Museum in the 1990s, as the Shire Hall was seen as an ideal location to show the development of the criminal justice system over time.77 Despite this, the chosen narratives result in many important historical facts that best characterise Massey and his work being left out of the interpretation in favour of the most basic information, completely void of nuance and complexity.

  • 78 Surgeon’s reports of the Nottingham County Gaol, 19 October 1868 and 5 April 1869, Nottinghamshir (...)
  • 79 Silverman (2009, p. 74).
  • 80 Surgeon’s reports of the Nottingham County Gaol, 3 January 1870, Nottinghamshire Archives, Access (...)

35An aspect that has been drawn out from the historical records is the information concerning his treatment of prisoners who showed signs of mental illness, and how they were sent away from the prison to local or national mental institutions. This was the case for James Ropiter, Henry Stanley and a number of other prisoners who were seen as “being of unsound mind” and were consequently discharged to Sneinton Asylum.78 The local asylum is mentioned by name to bring an element of realism to the costumed interpretation as the act of referencing specific places can solidify visitor understandings of the history that is being presented.79What is not mentioned by the costumed interpreter is that Massey was highly concerned about the high levels of people showing signs of insanity, which he documented in his report from 3 January 1870.80

  • 81 Brown (2009, p. 109).
  • 82 Ibid.
  • 83 Extract from case book on admission to Broadmoor Hospital, Schedule A: Mary Ann Parr, Berkshire R (...)

36The relationship between the prison staff and the prisoners is also established through the representation of the “mad doctor”, who is portrayed by an actor during the museum’s after-hours Terror Tours. Whilst it is uncertain whether Massey’s name is attached to this character, the interpretation of the “mad doctor” on prison museum night tours is also a common sight in historic prisons in the USA, as Michelle Brown has demonstrated in her work.81 Brown argues that by presenting the history in this manner, the prison space is configured as an “empty historical and haunted space”, which distances the past from the present.82 During the after-hours tours at the site, a character named Mary Ann Parr is also occasionally presented. She was imprisoned at the Shire Hall after being found guilty of murdering her child. Massey deemed her to be of unsound mind and was consequentially the first woman to be admitted to the Broadmoor Hospital.83 She is also on display on the rotation of prisoner characters at the museum, where the interpreter speaks to visitors about the work women were put to during their imprisonment.

  • 84 Coleborne (2012, p. 21).
  • 85 Ibid.
  • 86 UK Parliament (2017).

37These interpretations often exaggerate the oppressive nature of institutional life, in particular the power relations between the staff and patients, which are difficult to avoid when presenting this history to the public.84 Catharine Coleborne has argued that representations such as these are purported by films and novels, which can affect the narratives of mental health history within museums.85 This focus on popular ideas about mental health history leads to problematic interpretations of the past, with little discussion of the present. Mental illness as a topic of discussion within these museums can and should be presented in more ethically and socially responsible ways that demonstrate the significance of current prison issues that have a long-recorded history. For instance, a parliamentary report published in 2017 stated that 37% of the prison population in the UK reported mental health and wellbeing issues between 2016 and 2017, whilst 70% of prisoners who committed suicide between 2012 and 2014 were known to have had mental health issues.86 These issues affecting modern prisons are not discussed within the museum. Whilst it can be argued that the site does not need to present this modern aspect because it is a history museum, Barton and Brown’s argument that these sites to be more political in their representations of the history points towards the need for a more ethically-responsible and less sensationalised interpretations of mental health issues within the museums.

38The characterisations of prison staff at both museums are infused with commonplace narratives of crime and penal history. This is understandable when we consider the museums’ need to sustain visitor numbers in order to generate enough revenue so that the sites stay open. The history that is being presented needs to be simultaneously entertaining, educational, accessible, and family-friendly, which is why the gaoler and prison surgeon are presented at these sites in the ways that they are. The decisions made by the museums to present prison staff in a generally negative and sensational manner may result in visitors viewing them in this problematic one-dimensional way, which distorts people’s understandings of prison history.

Anachronistic Interactions

  • 87 Sutherland Clothier (2014, p. 212).

39Another interpretation tool that is utilised by the museums to move the narratives forward involves the creation of a conversation between two historical people who would never have met. These anachronistic interactions are a form of theatre that take place at many other heritage sites.87 This method of interpretation is identifiable at both York Castle Museum and the National Justice Museum. Through creating a dialogue between historical individuals that factually never met or interacted with each other, the museums sacrifice historical accuracy in favour of a broader exhibition narrative. Whilst this method may support a general understanding of the exhibitions, the museums create false narratives that result in the continuation of common ideas relating to the historical criminal justice system.

  • 88 Randall (2002, p. 3).
  • 89 Randall (2002, p. 123).
  • 90 Barton, Brown (2015, p. 251).
  • 91 York Castle Prison, Keepers and Prisoners, Simon Hargreaves and William Hartley, http://www.yorkc (...)
  • 92 Randall (2002, p. 3).

40One example of an anachronistic interaction within the York Castle Prison Exhibition includes the conversation between Simon Hargreaves and William Hartley that takes place in their shared cell. Together they discuss the crimes they committed and reflect upon the repercussions they are experiencing as a result. The audio-visual display informs visitors that Hargreaves was sentenced to transportation to Australia for breaking and entering a house and stealing a boiled egg in 1829. Hartley’s character is instead used to represent the site’s connection to the Luddite Riots that took place in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire in 1811 and 1812, as he was convicted for robbing a house in 1813 whilst in search for weapons to be used for Luddite activities.88 The Luddites were a group of radicals who feared that weaving machinery would replace them as workers within the textile industry, and in response to this they sought to destroy them.89 As noted by Barton and Brown in their research, the York Castle Prison Exhibition website sensationalises the criminal trials of each prisoner.90 For Hargreaves, an introduction on the website describes him as a troublemaker and a “lager lout” who was convicted of burglary for stealing a boiled egg, with Hartley described as a “casualty of the industrial revolution”.91 This is reminiscent of Labour historians’ interpretation of Luddism, as they have viewed Luddites with a degree of sympathy due to the problems they faced.92 In addition, although the interpretation on the website presents a less than positive view of Hargreaves’ character, the exhibition proves more sympathetic.

  • 93 York Castle Gaol — William Hartley reference documents (2009, p. 4), in which the document specif (...)
  • 94 York Castle Prison Exhibition, Simon Hargreaves and William Hartley Projection (visited 29 June 2 (...)

41In the exhibition, Hargreaves’ experiences of the nineteenth-century criminal justice system are constructed through his conversation with Hartley. The projection opens with Hargreaves carving graffiti into the cell wall, his character is arrogant and hostile to Hartley, and alludes to his cellmate’s Luddite activities as evidence that he fears progress. Hartley admits that he made a mistake and regrets his decisions that led to him committing the crime that will result in his execution, but attempts to give Hargreaves “fatherly” advice that he should consider his transportation sentence as a second chance at life.93 In response to Hartley’s defence of his acts, Hargreaves argues that he was unjustly convicted because he was hungry and wanted something to eat. Hartley then calls him a drunk and hints that there is more to the story than Hargreaves admits and tells him to “grow up”. Following the one-minute projection is a paragraph about what happened next to each of the men. Regarding Hargreaves, it states that he was shipped to Australia in 1829 and remained rebellious until he met his wife. For Hartley, it states that he was found guilty and was hanged in 1813 alongside fourteen other Luddites on the grounds of the York Castle Prison.94

  • 95 Hull Packet (4 August 1829).
  • 96 Ibid.
  • 97 Ibid.
  • 98 Conduct record for Simon Hargreaves, Libraries Tasmania, Accession number: CON31-1-19, accessed o (...)

42Whilst Hargreaves is interpreted within the museum display as a young poverty-stricken drunkard who is accused of the trivial theft of a hardboiled egg, there is more to his case than simply the theft of this one item, with the museum choosing to focus on this aspect of his crime to encourage a sympathetic reaction from visitors. The Hull Packet’s summary of the York 1829 Summer Assizes reported that Hargreaves was accompanied by two other offenders who “were seen lurking around the prosecutor’s house on 18th of May last; on the following morning, the house was found to have been broken into and robbed of six loaves of bread, one pound of butter, nine eggs, a pint of dripping, and some elderberry syrup.”95 The constables were notified and the three men ran away from the scene of the crime before they were eventually caught, Hargreaves was found with an egg in one pocket and the elderberry syrup in the other.96 Whilst awaiting trial he was reprimanded at York Castle Gaol due to bad behaviour and for making an attempt to escape the prison and his inevitable trial.97 His bad behaviour continued after his transportation to Van Diemen’s Land until he was conditionally pardoned in 1842, twelve years after his transportation.98

  • 99 Interview with the Assistant Curator of Social History Learning (Formal) at the York Castle Museu (...)
  • 100 Lambert (2002, p. 111-127).
  • 101 Barton, Brown (2015, p. 247-249).
  • 102 Ibid.

43It is clear from the archival material that the story of Simon Hargreaves is more complicated and nuanced than the narrative reconstruction suggests. The history is distorted in the video to present the history of crime and punishment in a way that explores issues surrounding civics, citizenship, and the impact of poverty before the welfare state, which are put forward as part of the museum’s educational agenda.99 It makes no reference to the primary source information that provides detailed concerning how Hargreaves stole much more than one hardboiled egg, the details of his rebellious actions in Tasmania, or how long he was documented as being rebellious before he “made good”. This is very much reminiscent of modern interpretations of the convict past, as Ronald Lambert has explored from interviews with the descendants of Australian convicts.100 As well as this, this focus on the one item that Hargreaves stole is reflective of the narrative of “penal progressivism” in which the brutal conditions faced by paupers in the past led them to commit crimes out of necessity, for which they were excessively punished.101 This narrative has also been commented upon by Barton and Brown, who see this as a deliberate choice made by these museums to emphasise this common view of historical crime and punishment.102

  • 103 York Castle Gaol — William Hartley reference documents (2009, p. 3), it should be noted the novel (...)
  • 104 Leeds Mercury (23 January 1813).
  • 105 Ibid.
  • 106 Ibid.

44While the details of Hargreaves’ history are manipulated to adhere to the wider implicit narrative of the role of poverty in shaping crime and punishment, the narrative reconstruction of William Hartley remains more accurate to the primary source material. The York Castle Prison reference document states that there were several sources that were consulted when constructing Hartley’s character narrative, including a published account of the trial, numerous newspaper accounts, and a historical fiction novel.103 While conducting further research and checking the sources used for the construction of Hartley’s character, it became apparent that the newspaper articles across the country are largely reprints for an original January 1813 article in the Leeds Mercury.104 Although there is only one main account, the presentation of Hartley remains relatively true to the history. In the reconstruction, Hartley shows remorse for the robbery, but remains resolute that he never handled a weapon. This is a direct reference to the published account where Hartley is recorded as having stated, “I was there, but I received no arms, nor made any demand of any.”105 The remorse that Hartley felt was also recorded in the published account and the newspaper article, which reported that he was visited by his eldest daughter and was grieved by the thought of his children being orphaned after his execution.106Therefore, the most fictitious aspect of Hartley’s representation is his conversation with Hargreaves. Hartley was executed long before Hargreaves arrived in the prison and it seems that their conversation was created to drive the wider narrative of the exhibition and to encourage an emotional reaction from visitors. This raises the question of how valuable the broad messages that museums attempt to send to their visitors are, especially when they are presented at the cost of historical accuracy.

45There is also an example of a historical character conversation that can be seen at the National Justice Museum in Nottingham. Rather than two prisoners having this conversation however, this ten-minute video features two costumed interpreters taking on the roles of reformers John Howard and Elizabeth Fry, who compare the prison reforms that each of them strove for and debate about whose work was more influential. The prison reform narrative is woven into this instance of costumed interpretation, as both characters speak about the progress that was essential to tackle the inhumanity and inefficiencies that were apparent in the eighteenth and nineteenth-century prison systems.

  • 107 Johnston (2015, p. 89).
  • 108 Mcconville (1981, p. 99-101).
  • 109 Johnston (2015, p. 90).
  • 110 Ibid.
  • 111 Mcconville (1981, p. 170).
  • 112 Johnston (2015, p. 97).

46Howard’s written experiences visiting prisons and gaols throughout England and Wales in 1770s were widely read, and many became aware of the prison conditions on which he wrote.107 He advocated for state-controlled prisons that had healthy environments, as well as a strict regime of solitary confinement, hard labour and religious instruction, which was informed by his belief that imprisonment should be focused on reform and rehabilitation, and not solely punishment. The plans for the 1779 Penitentiary Act were not carried out, but Howard’s proposals did influence local MPs and magistrates from counties such as Sussex and Gloucestershire, who took on these ideas when they applied for local Acts of Parliament to build new local prisons.108 With regards to Fry, her work in establishing various reform societies for female prisoners also generated a considerable amount of admiration from her contemporaries, which drove forward various reform Acts in the early nineteenth century. This included the Gaols Act of 1823, which paved the way for state-run prisons.109 This largely ineffective Act provided visits for chaplains, gaoler salaries, banned the use of leg irons and manacles and allowed female warders for female prisoners, prisons were also meant to be inspected by local magistrates and reports sent to the Home Secretary to present them in Parliament.110 The Prisons Act of 1835 then allowed for the Home Secretary to appoint prison inspectors to make annual reports, and for prisons to gain financial assistance from the Treasury.111 It was not until 1877 however, when the Prison Act of the same year transferred complete control of the country’s prisons to the Home Office.112

  • 113 Ray (2001, p. xii).
  • 114 Visitor questionnaires, conducted by R. Pickin at the Galleries of Justice Museum and York Castle (...)
  • 115 Ibid.
  • 116 See UK Parliament (2018, p. 23).

47This history of prison reform is detailed and nonlinear, with the reforming of prisons gradually taking place over time. By placing the importance on particular historical figures, a Whiggish interpretation of the history can be identified in this museum display, which omits information about long-term reforms that took place on local levels before complete state control. This interpretation of the two characters engaging in this conversation does little to confront these complexities, but the placing of these two historical figures together into this type of audio-visual display can be seen to result in a positive experience for visitors because it makes the history of prison reform accessible. Celeste Ray argues that representations such as this are demonstrative of the “creative side” of heritage and the balancing of historical “truths” against “idealised simulacra”.113 Whilst this “creative side” can also be identified in the representations of Howard and Fry, the “idealised simulacra” affects the narrative of prison reform that is presented at the site, which is simplified and contains little discussion on the modern day. The few displays that do focus on modern prison issues include two small text panels on prison riots that took place in 2016, and the building of super prisons in the UK. However, these issues affecting modern prisons are not explored in as much depth as the narrative of prison reform over time, which results in visitors focusing on narratives of penal progression. This was the case at both museums, as all of the 45 visitors who took part in visitor surveys at the National Justice Museum described this narrative of prison history, which was also the case for the 43 York Castle Museum visitors who were prompted to describe the history of crime and punishment.114 In relation to this, only 7 visitors to the National Justice Museum and 4 visitors to York Castle Museum described the issues affecting modern prisons.115 Other problems such as prisoner mental health, drug abuse and suicide are also not explored in any depth at these sites, despite being reported upon within recent prison reports.116

48These character interactions are anachronistic as the costumed interpretation depicts conversations between individuals who would have never met or spoken to each other in the past. This creative interpretation is used by the museums to put forward a narrative of penal reform within history. The lack of nuance, omission of historical facts and overdependence on popular historical narratives does little to challenge commonly-held views. This is problematic because these interpretations impact views of the past and present, which sets a dangerous precedent in how important issues within modern prisons are discussed within these sites.


49This article has analysed how the representations of female prisoners, prison staff, and anachronistic interactions in The National Justice Museum and the York Castle Museum compare to the historical record and academic crime history literature. These interpretations lack complexity and nuance in relation to the primary source material, and this over-simplification misinforms the visitor and results in unethical entertainment-led narratives. They often follow common tropes and stereotypes that reduce the significance of the history whilst sensationalising the suffering of real historical individuals.

50Scripts are used in both museums to tell first-person narratives of prison experiences, which are either told through audio-visual media or live interpretation. One main problem is that although there may be a number of primary sources that provide information about the prisoners’ court hearings and executions, the prisoners’ voices are almost never heard. This means that the museums need to convert the third-person articles into a first-person narrative for the exhibitions, essentially putting words in the mouths of the prisoners. Although the museums use this method in an attempt to create prisoner agency, this often comes at the expense of the complicated histories they encapsulate and results in the omission of certain historical facts. This seemingly paradoxical interpretation is heavily influenced by institutional factors such as the influence of dark tourism to commodify the sensational history, and also the understanding that families and school children are major sections of the audience, so the histories should also be age appropriate. These influences are interesting because the museums then form arbitrary boundaries of what is considered appropriate for family audiences.

51Museums have a responsibility to ensure that the representation of these historical individuals is truthful and should not distort the nature of their sufferings to suit a particular narrative. Each of the individuals who are on display were alive during or prior to the nineteenth century, with the passage of time making the questionable representations more suited to the museums’ established narrative of “penal progressivism”. Even with limited primary sources there are opportunities for the sites to acknowledge these difficult histories within the physical constraints of the exhibition spaces. A greater understanding and appreciation of the types of primary sources used to create these narratives is needed to establish a more nuanced approach. Prisoner agency can be established through a range of primary and secondary literature, with the ethical responsibility of presenting this history necessitating the need for expert knowledge on this difficult topic, which can be achieved through future collaborations between museum professionals and crime historians.

52The interpretations of historic individuals at these sites are similar to the Dungeon attractions than those at other international sites of penal heritage, such as Kilmainham Gaol in Ireland, Robben Island in South Africa, Port Arthur in Tasmania and Eastern State Penitentiary in the USA. These sites present their histories in a way that is important to the civics of society today rather than the entertainment-led focus that has dictated the interpretation of historical individuals, as examined in this article. At Eastern State Penitentiary, the “Big Graph” in the prison yard and the “Prisons Today” exhibition demonstrate how prison museums around the world can make their histories relevant to society today. The “Big Graph” is a sixteen foot tall sculpture that illustrates the growth of the American incarceration rates since 1900, a racial breakdown of the American prison population since 1970, and a chart of every nation in the world by rate of incarceration and stance on capital punishment.117 The “Prisons Today” exhibition “elicits personal connections to recent historic changes in the U.S. criminal justice system, encourages reflection, supports dialogue, and suggests steps that visitors can take to help shape the evolution of the American criminal Justice system moving forward.”118 The museum has been lauded as “a leading organization among historic sites” that does “thoughtful and imaginative work in interpreting their site for their public and connecting the site and its history to contemporary issues.”119 Whilst there are some examples of modern prison issues being presented in the museums included in this study, such as the timeline of prison riots on display at the National Justice Museum, British prison museums are more often associated with “lighter” forms of dark tourism. This is problematic as their current interpretations of difficult topics are not as contemplative as they could be. However, it is important to remember that the sensationalisation of crime and penal heritage is a global issue for prison museums, as can be seen from the representation of the Alcatraz prison museum in California and its links to Al Capone.120

53In their current iterations, the two British prison museums that have been analysed in this article are accessible and entertaining but do not challenge common misconceptions of crime and punishment history. Despite this, they still have the ability to challenge public perceptions and should strive to present the experiences of historical prisoners in a responsible and ethical manner. Future research should consider employing similar methodologies to conduct transnational comparative analyses of prison museums to assess how the history on display compares to the historical record and academic literature.

Haut de page


Allison, D.B., Living History: Effective Costumed Interpretation and Enactment at Museums and Historic Sites, Rowman & Littelfield, London, 2016.

Barton, A., Brown, A., Dark Tourism and the Modern Prison, The Prison Service Journal, 199, 2012, p. 44-49.

Barton, A., Brown, A, Show me the Prison! The development of prison tourism in the UK, Crime Media Culture 11, 3, 2015, p. 237-258.

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Ray, C., Highland Heritage: Scottish Americans in the American South, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill NC., 2001.

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1 York Castle Gaol — Mary Burgan Reference Document, York Castle Museum (2009, p. 1).

2 York Castle Prison Exhibition, Mary Burgan Projection (visited 29 June 2017).

3 Ibid.

4 See Jackson (1996).

5 Hodgkinson, Urquhart (2017, p. 578).

6 Stone, Sharpley (2008, p. 574).

7 Sharpley, Stone (2009, p. 127).

8 Stone, Sharpley (2008, p. 577).

9 Stone (2006, p. 151).

10 See Stone, Sharpley (2008, p. 574); Barton, Brown (2012, p. 44-48).

11 Strange, Kempa (2003).

12 Strange, Kempa (2003, p. 388).

13 Strange, Kempa (2003, p. 401).

14 Strange, Kempa (2003, p. 402).

15 Wilson (2008, p. 1).

16 Wilson (2008, p. 1, 69).

17 Ibid.

18 Piché, Walby (2010, p. 570-581).

19 Walby, Piché (2011, p. 451).

20 Ibid.

21 Barton, Brown (2012, p. 44).

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Barton, Brown (2015, p. 237).

25 Hodgkinson, Urquhart (2017, p. 579).

26 Ibid.

27 Hodgkinson, Urquhart (2017, p. 41-47).

28 Ibid.

29 Museums Association (2013, p. 3).

30 The National Justice Museum is the former Nottingham Galleries of Justice. The name was changed as part of a 2016-17 redevelopment of the museum.

31 York Castle Prison, York Castle Prison: Life in the Prison, (accessed 10 September 2018).

32 See Jenkin (2015); Palk (2001).

33 York Castle Gaol — Elizabeth Boardingham Reference Document, York Castle Museum (2009, p.  1).

34 Ibid.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid.

38 Dolan (1992, p. 317).

39 York Castle Prison Exhibition, Elizabeth Boardingham Projection (visited 29 June 2017).

40 Ibid.

41 Leeds Intelligencer (26 March 1776).

42 Ibid.

43 Ibid.

44 Zedner (1991, p. 40).

45 Interview with the Learning and Access Manager at the National Justice Museum, interviewed by D. Johnson, 19 January 2018.

46 Robinson (2015, p. 111).

47 National Justice Museum, Ann Castledine Video (date visited 18 January 2018).

48 Wilson (1909).

49 Wilson (1909, p. 4).

50 Ibid.

51 Nottinghamshire Guardian (7 August 1851).

52 Ibid.

53 Ibid.

54 Ibid.

55 See Bennet (2016, p. 159) and Cox (2014, p. 109).

56 Jackson (2002).

57 York Castle Prison, Keepers and Prisoners: Turnkey Thomas Ward, (accessed 10 September 2018).

58 York Castle Gaol — Thomas Ward Reference Document, York Castle Museum (2009, p. 1).

59 Ibid.

60 Ibid.

61 Male, 46, York Castle Museum visitor interviews, interviewed by R. Pickin.

62 Female, 61, York Castle Museum visitor interviews, interviewed by R. Pickin.

63 Turner, Peters (2015, p. 77).

64 Barton, Brown (2015, p. 246).

65 See Royal College of Surgeons (2012).

66 Ibid.

67 The Lancet (8 March 1851).

68 See London Medical Gazette: Or, Journal of Practical Medicine, (Volume 30, 1842), Nottingham Review and General Advertiser for the Midland Counties (2 August 1850), Nottinghamshire Guardian (21 April 1853), Nottinghamshire Guardian (9 November 1854) Nottinghamshire Guardian (19 March 1857), Nottinghamshire Guardian (10 February 1859), Nottinghamshire Guardian (23 November 1877).

69 Surgeon’s reports of the Nottingham County Gaol, Nottinghamshire Archives, Accession numbers: C/QAG/2/3-4.

70 Hardy (1995, p. 59).

71 Surgeon’s reports of the Nottingham County Gaol, Easter Sessions 29 June 1857, Nottinghamshire Archives, Accession numbers: C/QAG/2/3-4.

72 Surgeon’s reports of the Nottingham County Gaol, Michaelmas Sessions 15 October 1866, Nottinghamshire Archives, Accession numbers: C/QAG/2/3-4.

73 Surgeon’s reports of the Nottingham County Gaol, Michaelmas Sessions 5 April 1858, Nottinghamshire Archives, Accession numbers: C/QAG/2/3-4.

74 Ibid.

75 Allison (2016, p. 3).

76 Ibid.

77 Black, James (1993, p. 14).

78 Surgeon’s reports of the Nottingham County Gaol, 19 October 1868 and 5 April 1869, Nottinghamshire Archives, Accession numbers: C/QAG/2/3-4.

79 Silverman (2009, p. 74).

80 Surgeon’s reports of the Nottingham County Gaol, 3 January 1870, Nottinghamshire Archives, Accession numbers: C/QAG/2/3-4.

81 Brown (2009, p. 109).

82 Ibid.

83 Extract from case book on admission to Broadmoor Hospital, Schedule A: Mary Ann Parr, Berkshire Record Office, Accession numbers: D/H14/D2/2/2/1/1.

84 Coleborne (2012, p. 21).

85 Ibid.

86 UK Parliament (2017).

87 Sutherland Clothier (2014, p. 212).

88 Randall (2002, p. 3).

89 Randall (2002, p. 123).

90 Barton, Brown (2015, p. 251).

91 York Castle Prison, Keepers and Prisoners, Simon Hargreaves and William Hartley, (accessed 21 March 2017).

92 Randall (2002, p. 3).

93 York Castle Gaol — William Hartley reference documents (2009, p. 4), in which the document specifically recommends Hartley gives Hargreaves “fatherly” advice.

94 York Castle Prison Exhibition, Simon Hargreaves and William Hartley Projection (visited 29 June 2017).

95 Hull Packet (4 August 1829).

96 Ibid.

97 Ibid.

98 Conduct record for Simon Hargreaves, Libraries Tasmania, Accession number: CON31-1-19, accessed online:$002f$002fNAME_INDEXES$002f0$002fNAME_INDEXES:1399126/one (Accessed 28 September 2018).

99 Interview with the Assistant Curator of Social History Learning (Formal) at the York Castle Museum, 24 November 2016.

100 Lambert (2002, p. 111-127).

101 Barton, Brown (2015, p. 247-249).

102 Ibid.

103 York Castle Gaol — William Hartley reference documents (2009, p. 3), it should be noted the novel is referenced with caution within the reference document, as the novelist is accused of playing fast and loose with the history and not citing sources.

104 Leeds Mercury (23 January 1813).

105 Ibid.

106 Ibid.

107 Johnston (2015, p. 89).

108 Mcconville (1981, p. 99-101).

109 Johnston (2015, p. 90).

110 Ibid.

111 Mcconville (1981, p. 170).

112 Johnston (2015, p. 97).

113 Ray (2001, p. xii).

114 Visitor questionnaires, conducted by R. Pickin at the Galleries of Justice Museum and York Castle Museum, 25/08/16-26/08/16 and 22/09/16-23/09/16, Visitor interviews, conducted by R. Pickin at the National Justice Museum and York Castle Museum, 03/08/17-04/08/17 and 10/04/17-11/04/17.

115 Ibid.

116 See UK Parliament (2018, p. 23).

117 Eastern State Penitentiary, The Big Graph, (accessed 20 April 2019).

118 Eastern State Penitentiary, Prisons Today, (accessed 20 April 2019).

119 Shannon Eblen, The New York Times, A Former Prison Breaks From the System That Built It, 12 March 2019, (accessed 20 April 2019).

120 Strange, Kempa (2003, p. 401-402).

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Dan Johnson et Rhiannon Pickin, « Suffering on Display »Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies, vol. 23, n°1 | 2019, 5-26.

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Dan Johnson et Rhiannon Pickin, « Suffering on Display »Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies [En ligne], vol. 23, n°1 | 2019, mis en ligne le 30 septembre 2021, consulté le 26 janvier 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Dan Johnson

Department of History, University of York

Rhiannon Pickin

Cultural Studies and Humanities Department
Leeds Beckett University

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© Droz

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