Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Category: site review

Crime and policing museums in the UK and Ireland

Lincoln Castle

Lincoln Castle

I’ve started putting together a map of crime and policing museums from England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. This is a work in progress, and so will be added to, although do feel free to make your suggestions as to other places I should be listing!

I’ve already been to quite a few of these, and when I’ve got time, hope to put together short reviews or links to my published reviews of these sites.

My first visit to one of these sites was to Inverarary Jail back in 1995, when I was on a family holiday here. My aunt persuaded me to go with her for something to do, and so I have her to thank for getting me interested in criminal history at that point! The photos you can see on the map have all been taken by me; when I can find the ones I’ve taken of other sites, I’ll add those too.

Dark glamour and transgressive behaviour: Crime Stories in New York

Photo 28-05-2016, 05 50 19It’s not every day that you ask an information assistant at a museum where one of their exhibitions is, and they don’t know the answer – and even ask you questions about the exhibition, because they’re not aware of it.

This is what happened when I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It suggests that the particular exhibition I wanted to see wasn’t high up on their list of priorities, which is a shame – because it was a fascinating one, and one that I hope many visitors would have heard of and sought out.

The exhibition, Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play, started in March, and runs until the end of July. It is positioned up on the second floor of the Fifth Avenue museum, round the back of the gift shop, and isn’t signposted virtually until you get to it. It’s not one of the main exhibitions the museum is promoting at the moment – evident from its volunteer’s blank face when I asked about it – but it is certainly the most unusual, being only feet away from works by Van Gogh and the likes.

The exhibition charts the history of crime photography, from the 19th century onwards. So we have a good look at French innovations of the Victorian era, in terms of criminal profiling and mugshots, offering a European perspective on crime and its recording. There are some fascinating artefacts – including Samuel G Szabo‘s ‘Rogues: A Study of Characters’ from around 1860, where the Hungarian photographer worked in collaboration with the police to make a study of offenders to try and identify the physical characteristics of the ‘criminal psyche’. His portraits include those of a shoplifter, wife poisoner, highwayman and murderer.

One of Bertillon's mesmerising images

One of Bertillon’s mesmerising images

There is, inevitably, Alphonse Bertillon‘s chart of physical traits of criminals, which enabled police to describe prisoners’ physical features in great detail, from their brows to their ears. Bertillon’s mug shots of suspected anarchists in late 19th century France are also here; and they are so detailed that you can spend a substantial amount of time just looking at them and noticing the detail of clothing, the colour of eyes, and so on.

Moving onto 20th century America, there are several photos by the infamous Weegee – press photographer Arthur Fellig, who produced sensationalist crime photographs, including ‘Outline of a Murder Victim’. There are also several 1940s crime scene photographs, and the curator has made the link between these photos and the film noir of the era very well, showing why these photos look so familiar to us in style and content. Famous assassinations – from Lincoln to JFK, and including Lee Harvey Oswald – are also, understandably, included; the latter two defining modern America.

The exhibition shows how we are both repelled and drawn to crime photography – its ‘dark glamour’ and portrayal of transgression appealing to our subconscious. It’s a well thought out, dark, but compelling display – and if you’re in New York over the next two months, it is well worth seeking out.

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A very dark tourism: Torture, incarceration and execution in Wicklow

Photo 28-03-2016, 12 14 08As part of a recent research trip to Ireland, I visited the 18th century gaol in Wicklow town, to look at how prisoners were treated here. This week, I’ll be publishing a series of posts on aspects of prison life here, but I thought I’d start with a general review of the site as a tourist attraction.

The ‘Historic Gaol’ as it has been termed is packaged as a bit of a themed day out with costumed interpreters – always a bit of a concern for me, as these ‘interpretations’ can be a bit hit or miss (and I’ve even heard interpreters give completely erroneous information out to visitors). It also means it has a completely different approach to Kilmainham Gaol in nearby Dublin, which only lets you round as part of a guided tour, but takes these (uncostumed!) tours very seriously, concentrating on the prison’s political history and leaving the cells and so on as they would have been – giving you the shudders as you go round.

But in reality, the costumed ‘warder’ only gives you, in effect, an introduction to the site before letting you loose on the rest of the gaol (although you have to follow a set path round). The first stop is the exercise yard, where there is a treadwheel in situ. The ‘prisoners’ depicted on this really showed how mind-numbing the treadwheel was, and how dangerous – it was stressed to visitors that the ‘windows’ at the top of the treadwheel were not for prisoners to look through, but for the spotting of bodies, as particularly younger, smaller prisoners may have slipped between the steps and fallen to their deaths.

After the exercise yard, you are taken back into the main building, where, on the ground floor, each cell has been fitted with something to look at – either a recreation of a cell scene, or a video screen telling the story of an individual or a type of offence, or an audio track again telling a story. The history of transportation is covered here in detail. Downstairs, the dungeons can be viewed; upstairs are more cells looking at different aspects of the criminal justice system and incarceration, including the treatment of lunatic prisoners and the jobs that prisoners undertook.

The multimedia elements are both good and creative; although I dislike the use of waxworks to show prisoners in their cells, they are at least used here for a distinct purpose (the torture cell, which I will cover in a separate post, is particularly fascinating). There is a recreation of a transportation ship, which offers something different to the usual prison experience, and the obligatory cafe and (small) gift shop.

Although the gaol’s website and Facebook page suggest that a visit will be more theme park than serious learning experience, they actually give the wrong impression. There is plenty of serious history here, informative and well presented; it’s well worth a visit.

Wicklow Historic Gaol is on Kilmantin Hill in Wicklow Town, and is open every day. See the website for more details.

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The next in my short series of blog posts on Wicklow Gaol, looking at torture and one particular torturer at the site, will be published on Wednesday.

The horrors of Kilmainham Gaol

image1 4Last month, I visited Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, and it had quite an effect on me.

Unlike many sanitised dark tourism sites, Kilmainham remains a forbidding site.

The first thing to mention about it is the cold. Little effort has been made to bring it into the 21st century with heating, or decent lighting, or any mod cons.

Apart from the museum – which is a fascinating place, well designed and with so much information that you can spend hours there – the place is firmly set in the past.

You can imagine the lives of the prisoners who once spent their days and nights there; the men crammed in their small cells, the women and children bedding down on straw in the corridors, under open, unglazed windows – at the mercy of the Irish weather.

image2 3This was once, in the late eighteenth century, home primarily to debtors, who made up over 50 per cent of prisoners. But it was also home to petty thieves, drunks, and prostitutes. Men and women were held together, in spaces designed for far fewer.

Window glass was not brought to the site until the late 1840s – until then, how many people must have died after failing to get adequate warmth within the confines of the gaol?

The Vagrancy (Ireland) Act, passed in 1847, served to punish those who, made destitute by the Famine, tried to beg in the streets, or steal food.

The prison became home to these poor people, with up to five sharing a cell designed for one. At least, now, they had a roof over their heads and regular food and drink.

Kilmainham is, of course, mainly associated with political prisoners. The instigators of the Easter Rising of 1916 were brought here, and executed in the yard.

image3 3Today, a cross marks the spot where all but one of these men faced the firing squad (the other, James Connolly, was so ill, he had to be constrained in a chair and killed near the gate where he had been brought in, unable to walk to the traditional execution spot).

You can only visit Kilmainham as part of a guided tour, and even as part of a group, it feels dark, claustrophobic and intimidating walking its corridors and looking at the cell doors behind which so many prisoners languished.

But for that reason, it is well worth a visit. It brings to life how awful prison life was, up there on Gallows Hill, rather than attempting to be a tourism “experience” with costumed guides and garish souvenirs.

 

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