Let’s Go to Gaol: Prison History, Prison Museums, and Why They Matter

Lincoln Entrance
Front view of the Victorian Prison at Lincoln Castle

Dan Johnson is a PhD researcher in the Department of History at the University of York. His research focusses on public understandings of British penal history in museums.

Prisons are a major part of society, yet most of society have never seen one. We are taught that if we break the law, we go to jail. Our society depends on law and order, and if you break the law, you could be punished with by spending time in jail or prison. Crime and punishment is featured prominently on television in series such as Orange is the New Black, Prison Break, and Porridge; as well in movies including The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and even Toy Story 3. Crime and punishment have always been popular in literature, the news, and other media outlets as well. Generally speaking, the way that a large portion of society views the prison is through the media. Our views of criminals are often glorified as either the violent criminal, or the mistakenly convicted. Guards are often portrayed as racist, corrupt, cruel, or inept. How did these views come to be? Are these stereotypes used purely for entertainment, or are they rooted in historical fact? How did our society come to view prisons these ways and how did they come to function the way that they do? Through the interpretation of prison history in museums, visitors may find answers to some of these questions.

Prison museums have become popular tourist attractions all over the world in the last few decades. Some of the most popular prison museums in the world are Alcatraz in California, Robben Island in South Africa, and Melbourne Gaol in Australia. These museums, and the hundreds of other prison museums around the world, all attempt to give an historical interpretation of the prison to help visitors to construct a more realistic view of penal history and how prisons work today. In order to form a better understanding of how prisons work today, it is important to understand the history of the prison. Prisons became the main form of punishment in the first half of the nineteenth century. Prior to that, the Bloody Code made over 200 criminal offences punishable by death. Those that were not hanged for their crimes were often transported to North America. Following the American War of Independence, prisoners were transported to Australia from 1788 until 1868. The Bloody Code was repealed with the 1823 Judgement of Death Act that made the death penalty discretionary for all crimes except murder and treason. The loss of the ability to hang or transport convicts to America lead to the necessity to develop a more expansive prison system. A number of prison reform acts from the 1830s-70s saw the development of a two-fold penal system consisting of local prisons and gaols (jails) for minor offences, and national penitentiaries starting with Millbank and Pentonville Prisons. These national penitentiaries were the birth of modern prisons in Britain.

Through the restructuring of the punishment system in the UK, the role of prisons has also changed. Originally, prisons were a place of punishment for prisoners once convicted. Ideas of punishment evolved from physical such as whippings, to mental, such as solitary confinement. Eventually, the role of prisons shifted from places of physical punishment to places of reflection and moral rehabilitation. This shift saw the introduction of the separate and silent systems. Both were forms of solitary confinement where prisoners had little interaction with each other and forced them to reflect on their actions and hopefully they would repent their sins and become rehabilitated. Today, prison is no longer a place where convicts go to receive punishment, but their sentence is their punishment. In order to help prisoners reintegrate, many prisons offer education and various trade courses to help them to have the opportunity of a productive life after incarceration.

Understanding prison history is important for society because it helps people to make sense of the system that we live in today. The average prisoner has never been a murderer, yet that is how we see them on TV and in the news. Prison museums allow visitors to enter historic prisons, see how past prisoners lived, and sometimes see how prisons look and function today. They give people the opportunity to learn about the penal system and why the prison populations, along with stereotypes look the way that they do. In the USA, Eastern State Penitentiary museum brings current prison issues into the public eye, including a new exhibition on mass incarceration. One of the best prison museums in the UK is located at the Victorian Prison in Lincoln Castle. At this museum, visitors step into a day in the life of Victorian prisoners in 1848. The museum explains that most criminals were not murderers or violent criminals, but were the unfortunate by-product of a class system that meant some were very wealthy and others were very poor. Most crime in Victorian rural Lincolnshire were convicted of theft, larceny, poaching, and pickpocketing because they simply needed to feed their families. Another top prison museum, the Nottingham Galleries of justice, houses and displays the HM Prison Service Collection that shows how the prison system has evolved over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Each prison museum shares a unique perspective on the history of criminal justice and provides visitors with a narrative rooted in history that they can compare to their previous assumptions and stereotypes perpetuated by the media and news outlets. Prison museums are special because they have the opportunity to provide visitors with a different view of the largely unknown, yet oddly familiar prison. It’s an opportunity to separate fact from fiction in an institution that is a large and important part of society. How different are prison museums from the popular culture? Visit one and see for yourself.

Experience: An Essential Addition to a History Degree

2014-05-21 18.37.43Dan Johnson is a PhD researcher in the Department of History. His research focusses on public understandings of crime history in museums.

As MA not-quite-graduates are entering the summer and beginning to write their dissertations, a dark shadow of uncertainty is creeping in. The majority of students are faced with the huge question of what’s next. For most, they have spent the last 4 years of their lives focussed on passing modules, writing papers, and conducting research. While some, like me, will decide to continue their courtship with academia by embarking on a PhD, many will begin their search for careers outside academia. Having a postgraduate degree in history provides a great foundation to move into many sectors of the workforce, however, one area that is in high demand where a master’s degree is less important is in heritage. Almost a year out of a Public History MA, I have seen some colleagues flourish and begin their careers strongly in the heritage sector while many are left floundering and struggling to find work. As they all have postgraduate degrees in history, I wondered why some are doing so well while others are not. Here are a few of my thoughts.

From speaking to other public history alumni, as well as museum practitioners and from my own experiences, I can determine that simply earning a Public History MA does not necessarily equate to a better chance of a job after the degree is finished. The course here at York trains students in the theory behind the inner workings of many aspects of the field including museum education, oral history, curation, history in the media, and much more. The research standards are just as rigorous as our more traditional history counterparts and we are trained to apply our historical interests into practical settings. On paper, we should be prime candidates for careers in museums, media, historical organisations, as well as many more areas in the heritage sector and beyond. So why are there many public history postgrads still searching for work, or even giving up on their heritage dreams? The answer is simple: despite attending every seminar, passing modules, and earning honours in a postgraduate history degree, the best candidates for heritage jobs will also bring a hefty amount of real world experiences to the interview table. Do a simple Google search for any museums/heritage job and experience will always be present in the ‘essential’ traits column.

I am writing this post because so many people wonder how they are supposed to gain these experiences while entrenched in a rigorous postgraduate degree. To those people, I argue that York provides many opportunities to gain this highly valued experience that employers are longing for. The Public History MA requires its students to do a placement during the spring term, which is a great step in the door for future voluntary and work opportunities with historical organisations across the UK, however, a few months work experience as part of the course may still fall on deaf ears of employers. Beyond the mandatory placement, there are opportunities for summer internships that not everyone  takes advantage of. Yes it is during the summer when students are slaving away over dissertations, but again, this is an amazing opportunity to gain experience and make connections with historical organisations that are so valuable in the field that we are trying to get into. It also demonstrates that students are capable of balancing multiple responsibilities at the same time, a highly sought after trait in a heritage sector that is increasingly gutted by funding cuts and relying on a limited number of full time employees to accomplish an ever-growing list of tasks. In addition to the placement and internship opportunities, the university has strong connections with many of the museums in York, which are always looking for volunteers during the year. Volunteering with an organisation a few times a month over the course of the year is vital to showing commitment to potential employers, demonstrates long term experience, and also allows students to get their names and faces recognised by potential employers when job interviews arise. If volunteering for sometimes mundane tasks in a museum are not interesting enough, the university has a number of opportunities to present research papers, organise public events, and gain funding for reading groups and conferences through the Humanities Research Centre and our many interdisciplinary research centres such as the Centre for Modern Studies. All of these provide valuable practical experience for history postgrads to bring into job applications and interviews.

What has become clear from looking at alumni with the same or similar degrees from higher education institutions across the UK and USA, that if you want a job in a museum or in the heritage sector, earning a degree and showing educational competency is not enough. The students that have taken advantage of the many opportunities that York has to offer have thrived, while those who showed up for seminars and wrote their research papers are struggling to find their way in this competitive and over-saturated field. If you glance at the graduate profiles on our website highlighting some of our most successful alumni, you will find that every one of them stresses the importance of gaining experience and putting your education into practice outside of the classroom. The University of York’s Public History MA offers every opportunity for its students to be fully prepared to be ideal candidates for careers with historical organisations; it is the responsibility of students to make the most of their time beyond the ivory tower of academia while completing their degrees. It is important to remember that if students truly want to get the most out of their public history degree, not all learning will happen in the classroom.