Our Criminal Past

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

Across the country there are many historic prisons and courtrooms that are open to the public as museums. The grandeur architecture of the historical courtroom and the cold stone walls of old gaols are brought to life through museum exhibits and tours that present the history of crime and punishment to the visiting public.

Empty cell at the Ripon Prison and Police Museum

Here visitors can roam the remains of what is presented as a barbaric system of criminal justice. They are transported back to a time when judges were more than willing to condemn a person to death, sentence them a torturous existence in the dark prison cells, put them to hard labour or have them whipped.

Although academics who study this history would dispute a number of the representations given by these museums, the interpretations these sites present are affected by their identity as something that is open to the public and therefore affected by the public. Alana Barton and Alyson Brown (2012) argue that for the most part these are sites of ‘edutainment’. Visitors are provided with information about the ways in which criminals were treated in centuries gone by and there is an element of playfulness in the presentation of the history at these sites. It is for this reason that Barton and Brown have also argued that these sites, and prison museums in particular, do very little to challenge commonplace ideas about punishment and the prison, which is presented for the most part as a positive narrative of change and reform over time. This was the main issue that remained at the centre of my Masters dissertation titled ‘Feeling the Past: Emotions and the Representation of History in Museums of Crime and Punishment’, which will also form the basis of my PhD research. For this research I examined the rationale behind the curatorial choices that affected the representation of history at three crime and punishment museums. This included the Nottingham Galleries of Justice Museum, Ripon Museum Trust and the York Castle Museum. Each of these sites present this history within historical courtrooms and prisons, which made for a more meaningful comparative study.

I had established a working relationship with two of the sites for my undergraduate dissertation research, examining the representation of history at dark tourism sites; places that have a link to difficult histories or death and pain. I employed oral history techniques for both pieces of research, which I will also be utilising for my PhD project. Erin Bell and Ann Gray (2007) refer to this methodology as ‘oral historiography’. It involved interviewing members of staff and volunteers who were employed at each of these museums to understand their rationale behind how they interpreted the history of crime and punishment in the museum displays. As well as interviewing members of staff I also visited the sites to evaluate the ways in which the history is presented and in what way. This was partly influenced by Sheila Watson’s (2013) argument that space, objects, performance, media and storytelling have an impact on the visitors’ emotional experience of museums. By documenting and analysing the museum displays at each of these sites in relation to these aspects, I was then able to apply my knowledge of eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth-century legal and punitive history. In each of these museums deliberate attempts are made to create a more emotional experience for visitors by putting them into the mind-sets of people from the past and highlighting the poor treatment these convicts would have experienced. By establishing the historical scene, a narrative flows through the spaces that the visitors animate by the physical action of walking through them. This is then heightened by the use of media and also carried along by costumed interpretation. However, it is difficult to say how successful these methods are in creating this emotional atmosphere because a lot of the interpretation depends on the visitors. This will be focused on in more detail during my PhD when visitors will be questioned about their reactions to the museum displays.

The use of objects in these museums was also examined. These came under subsections within themselves, including objects of corporal punishment, objects of restraint and objects of hard labour. What I found was that an emotional representation is interwoven into the presentation of each of these different object groups at the museums. Corporal punishment items, such as cat o’nine tail whips are intended to be understood empathetically because the descriptions of the objects encourage visitors to think about the pain that criminals would have felt. Objects of restraint, such as hand and leg manacles, also rely on empathy through visitors physically interacting with the objects to understand the heavy weight of them. Hard labour in prisons involved the use of objects such as the crank. For this prisoners would turn the handle on a box filled with something like sand that the handle pushed a peddle through the inside of the box as a form of monotonous and difficult punishment. The crank in particular could be interacted with at two of the museum sites to give visitors a taste of what kind of hard labour prisoners were put to. However, this object is presented in a very sanitised way as it is made a lot easier for visitors to push the handle because the box is empty with no sand or screws to make the activity difficult. I described this as an attempt to sanitise the history at these sites to make learning about this history more accessible.

The findings came under three main issues relating to the representation of history and emotions within these museums; change and continuation, personal experience and the sanitisation of history. The dominant narrative at each of these sites was one of positive change over time in how courtrooms and prisons treated criminals. This corresponded with Barton and Brown’s argument about how little is done to challenge popular ideologies, particularly as prison tourism sites rely on profits made by visitors who pay an entrance fee. I also argued how personal experience was a big part of the presentation at these sites because each of the museums uses interpretative techniques to encourage visitors to put themselves in the position of the historical criminals. Members of staff and volunteers who participated in the project emphasised how they have to balance the entertainment value of the site with their responsibility of presenting this history in an accurate manner to ensure that what they are presenting is accessible to the public. I argued that whilst there are many instances of the museums not shying away from presenting some of the more difficult narratives of historical crime and punishment, there are still examples of the history being sanitised. This removes many chances to examine uncomfortable issues that still affect prisons in the modern day.

Each of these aspects will be drawn upon for my PhD research. They will however be examined in more detail and will compare staff views to visitor opinions about how they interact with the representations of the history and if they have emotional reactions to these museum displays. Questionnaires, visitor observation and focus groups will be organised in the future to understand the viewpoints of visitors to these museums. My research will also build upon studies of the history of emotions. Although sources written from the criminals’ perspective are very limited, there are prison memoirs, prisoner petitions, documents written by those who worked or visited the prisons and court records that I intend to analyse for this research. I will also be employing various methodologies for reading into the history of emotions, including William Reddy’s (2001) influential work on how emotions have had an important impact on historical change. He also argues that by studying emotions it is possible to theorise the individual throughout history. This study of the history of emotions can therefore be used to better understand the experiences of convicts in historical courtrooms and prisons. Because of a modern abhorrence for past methods of punishment, this emerging literature on the history of emotions poses problems for these museum sites. However, the prospects for presenting this alternative history to the public will be evaluated as part of my research.

The main aim of my research is to understand how emotions and the history of crime and punishment is presented and understood at these museums. The differences between modern and historical emotions will also be assessed and how these differences may be appeased in future exhibitions. In the long term I hope that my research will have an impact on museums by allowing them to better understand their visitors and how they interact with museum displays. This research will also examine how courtroom museums operate as dark tourism sites. Whilst there is a wealth of literature written about prison museums as sites of dark tourism, historical courtrooms have not been subject to the same amount of academic focus. This will be something that this research will expand upon through examining how courtroom museums operate as dark tourism sites.

Images below are with kind permission from the Ripon Museums Trust.

Exterior of the Ripon Prison and Police Museum
The exterior of the Ripon Prison and Police Museum. The building was built in 1816 and was no longer used as a prison after 1878. After this time it was used as a police station between 1887 and 1956.

Interior of the Ripon Courthouse Museum
Interior of the Ripon Courthouse Museum. The building itself was built in 1830 and was in use until 1998 and opened as a museum a year later.

Empty cell at the Ripon Prison and Police Museum
The empty cell at the Ripon Prison and Police Museum. Visitors can walk into the cell and sit on the wooden boards, the large metal door can be shut from the outside, leaving visitors to contemplate the space.

Magistrates’ bench at the Ripon Courthouse Museum
The magistrates’ bench at the Ripon Courthouse Museum. Visitors are encouraged to sit at the bench and participate in acting out a courtroom scene.


  • Barton, A. and Brown, A., ‘Dark Tourism and the Modern Prison’, The Prison Service Journal 199 (2012).
  • Bell, E. and Gray, A., ‘History on Television: Charisma, Narrative and Knowledge’, European Journal of Cultural Studies 10 (2007).
  • Reddy, W. M., The Navigation of Feeling (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001).
  • Watson, S. ‘Emotions in the history museum’ in Witcomb, A., and Message, K., (eds) Museum Theory: an expanded field (Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2013).

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