Distinguishing Fact from Fiction in British Prison Museums

By Dan Johnson, University of York (@Dan_Johnson19)

Prison museums are becoming a popular form of dark tourism around the world. In the last few decades, infamous prisons that have been in use since the beginning of incarceration as a form of punishment in the nineteenth century have begun to close their doors to make room for more modern prisons. In the UK, many former prison buildings have been saved and repurposed, rather than torn down. Some former prison buildings have even been transformed into boutique hotels and student accommodation. Although there has been a recent rise in the closures of Victorian prison buildings, there was a first wave of closures of some of the first British penitentiaries following the nationalisation of the prison system in 1878. In the nineteenth century, many prisons were destroyed, however, some became tourist attractions. One of these prison buildings-turned-tourist sites is the Victorian Prison at Lincoln Castle.

The Victorian Prison at Lincoln Castle takes a different approach to its interpretation of the prison’s history from other museums around the world such as Eastern State Penitentiary and Fremantle Prison. Instead of feeding into the dark and sensational imagery associated popular interpretations of prisons and punishment, in 2015 the Victorian Prison at Lincoln Castle restored the building to allow visitors to experience life within the walls as if they were entering the site in 1848. Part of the restoration included matching paint samples to the original white walls with brown window trimmings and grey rails and stairs. This restoration and reinterpretation has been widely well reviewed, with one visitor stating, ‘We then visited the jail and it was well preserved and really authentic to the local jails built at the same time. I should know as I work in one!’ However, not all visitors were able to shed their preconceptions about prisons. Another reviewer who had visited the prison before and after the restoration asserted, ‘It could have more of a sense of despair, tough regime, isolation, smells, sounds- whereas it is rather anodyne and overly-white washed. Brilliant for kids though, but no longer authentic, alas.’ In both positive and negative reviews, the idea of authenticity is often at the centre of discussion.

The Victorian Prison at Lincoln Castle does not have a very large collection on display, causing it to rely heavily on technology to interpret some of the experiences of prisoners who were kept there. In one section, four prisoners are brought to life through video projections in a series of cells. The video projections each represent larger issues within punishment and society. One of the projections is used to discuss the end of public executions and early efforts to end capital punishment in the UK. In 1868, Lucy Buxton was sentenced to death for murdering her illegitimate child. The narrator of her video projection states that after her sentence, a petition signed by most of her local parish and all 12 of the jurists that found her guilty was sent to the judge pleading for clemency. In addition, a local cleric wrote into a Lincolnshire newspaper asking all Christians to pray for her. Eventually, her sentence was commuted to life in prison. The narrator finishes the video by stating, ‘People were beginning to suspect that there was something terribly wrong, not with young women like Lucy, but with a society that would drive her to commit such a terrible crime.’ This video is particularly poignant because it implores visitors to reflect on relationships between crime and society in the past, and the present.

Historic prison buildings have been redeveloped for many uses, however, arguably the most socially beneficial is the museum. At their best, these museums can offer authentic insight into one of society’s least visible public services, the prison system. As Victorian prisons such as Pentonville are edging closer to closing their gates, hopefully they can be reopened to provide a very different public service in the future.


Image: Victorian Prison at Lincoln Castle, Dan Johnson

1 thought on “Distinguishing Fact from Fiction in British Prison Museums

  1. Spot on with this write-up, I really believe that this amazing site needs a great deal more attention. I’ll probably be returning to read more, thanks for the info!

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