Contemporary Criminal Justice in Historical Context: Developing a Museum Exhibit about Mass Incarceration

Julie Peterson, Public History M.A., UMass History

On July 16, 2015, President Obama became the first sitting US President to visit a federal prison.  While at the El Reno medium-security facility in Oklahoma, Obama remarked on the unprecedented boom in the US prison population, and called for major sentencing reform.  This event is a defining moment of our times.  Amid police violence primarily perpetrated against people of color, and increasing rates of incarceration despite overall reduction of crime rates, the time for a frank national conversation about mass incarceration and its impacts has definitely come.  While Obama’s prison visit indicates that politicians are willing and ready to approach this conversation, museums and other cultural institutions are also making strides toward addressing these critical issues.

One such site with a growing commitment to interpreting contemporary criminal justice issues is Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The institution has embarked on a multi-year journey to incorporate the story of mass incarceration into its interpretive plan.  Originally built in the 1820s as the first penitentiary in the world to inspire true penitence in the individuals incarcerated there, Eastern State Penitentiary functioned as a prison until 1971, when it was abandoned for a number of years.  The former penitentiary began operating as an historic site with guided tours in 1994.  Since those early days of interpretation, the site has grown increasingly popular; today, Eastern State receives over 180,000 visitors per year.

This May, Eastern State Penitentiary will open a new exhibit called “Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration.”  The exhibit builds on information reflected in the Big Graph, a dramatic sculptural feature installed in the prison’s courtyard in 2014.  This graph depicts on a huge scale the rise of incarceration rates in the U.S., how this country compares to others throughout the world, and how race is reflected in rates of incarceration.  The exhibit expands on this data, seeking to place the contemporary phenomenon of mass incarceration in historical context, exploring criminal justice policy over the past forty years and encouraging visitors to consider their own relationship to the criminal justice system.

Photo 1

The Big Graph at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site. Photo courtesy of Sean Kelley.

I worked on the development of “Prisons Today” during the summer of 2015.  As a graduate intern, I conducted museum evaluation including title-testing and exhibit element prototyping, coordinated and facilitated focus group meetings with local community advocacy organizations, and assisted with an annual artist installation selection process.  Throughout my time at Eastern State, I encountered first hand the difficulties inherent to interpreting such a challenging topic at a historic site.  The museum staff was facing two major challenges.  The museum staff wanted to make sure that the exhibit was respectful of and truthful to the people who are directly impacted by incarceration; those most likely to be affected by mass incarceration are people of color, who are imprisoned at a rate 2.5 to 6.5 percent higher than their white counterparts.[1]  However, Eastern State’s primary audience are white, middle class tourists who are unlikely to have any connection to the criminal justice system.  The interpretive challenge, then, is how to approach the topic of mass incarceration in such a way that makes people who wouldn’t consider themselves affected by the carceral state see that all of us, in fact, are implicit in the system, while also recognizing that this topic is painfully close to home for other visitors.

Eastern State began the exhibit development process by reaching out to organizations that serve reentering citizens, provide services for currently incarcerated individuals, or work to support communities affected by mass incarceration in Philadelphia.  When I started working there, my role included facilitating focus groups with a couple of these advocacy organizations, soliciting feedback about the exhibit content and what these groups wanted to see in an exhibit on mass incarceration.  The focus groups continued throughout the fall, and these community advisors have an opportunity to suggest minor changes to the exhibit content even after the opening.

Certain key elements of this exhibit ask visitors to confront their own privilege and indicate how their personal background impacts their relationship to the criminal justice system.  These are obviously big questions, fraught with problematic associations with past and current forms of oppression that can be uncomfortable at best and dangerous at worst for people to discuss openly and honestly in a public forum such as a museum.  Being aware of these potential problems, I hosted a workshop for museum staff to test this interactive before taking it out on site to test with visitors.  The discussion that took place afterwards among staff members from all levels of the institution—from administration to tour guides and visitor services staff—was one of the most honest, productive conversations I have ever had about how our relative privilege affects the way we interact with the criminal justice system, and how this activity might encourage empathy among visitors.

Photo 2

Museum staff participate in prototyping an interactive activity about privilege. Author photo.

Photo 3

Julie Peterson speaks with museum visitors about how they felt when asked to participate in an interactive exhibit element about their personal relationship to the criminal justice system. Author photo.

These larger questions of shared authority and interpretation of difficult subjects, especially when it comes to race and the criminal justice system in this country, are of concern to other public historians.  In March, 2016, the National Council on Public History annual conference theme was “Challenging the Exclusive Past.”  The conference was hosted in Baltimore, a city with a legacy of responses to racist violence, from the 1968 unrest after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. to the 2015 protests of the police killing of Freddie Gray.  In light of current events, and keeping with the theme and conference location, a working group centered on interpreting the history of race riots and other racialized mass violence was proposed for the conference, and I was selected as a participant.

The working group, called “Interpreting the History of Race Riots and Racialized Mass Violence in the Age of Black Lives Matter,” set out to explore how meaningful connections can be established between public historians, community members, and activists in the context of contemporary social justice issues, especially as they relate to racism and racist violence in the United States.  My case statement blog post for the working group reflects on my current research about the history of the Museum of Colorado Prisons in Cañon City, CO.  Other participants in the working group focused on the interpretation and commemoration of race riots, and the ways that museums, historic sites, academic institutions and archives can put contemporary violent racist acts—like the shooting at an AME church in Charleston, SC in June 2015 and the murder of Michael Brown by police in August 2014—in historical context.  I created a website for our working group that contains participants’ bios and case statements, as well examples of exhibits and projects that deal with these issues, and a list of resources for interpreting racialized mass violence.

Photo 4

Working group participants and attendees broke into small groups the discuss themes related to the overall topic of interpreting racialized mass violence. Julie Peterson leads a discussion on absence and erasure. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Miller.

Our working group and other sessions throughout the conference—particularly the public plenary—sparked a host of rich conversations about the need for more inclusive public history practice, and the ways that we as public historians can engage in social justice work.  Some of these conversations were summarized in blog posts by my working group colleagues, Nick Sacco and Elizabeth Catte, and you can check out the Twitter hashtags #ncph2016 #WG4 for Tweets from the conference, and our working group specifically.  Many of the other important themes discussed at the conference can be found under the hashtags #MuseumsCivicDiscourse and #HistoryInMyImage and on the NCPH Conference Materials recap page.

The affective nature of interpreting the carceral state, and how to challenge the exclusive past, has become a driving force in my own public history work.  It has motivated my work on the Humanities Action Lab’s States of Incarceration project, for which I am serving as a consultant in developing exhibit panels on the impact of incarceration specifically in Massachusetts.  Along with a team of graduate students and faculty, we are working to historicize incarceration in Massachusetts and reveal the ways communities have responded to the crisis of incarceration over time.  The hands on experience I gained at Eastern State and the critical conversations of which I was a part at the National Council on Public History conference continue to guide the work that I do around interpreting contemporary criminal justice in historical context.

To learn more about “Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” see the exhibit press release and check out the most recent update on Eastern State’s website.

[1] Heather Ann Thompson, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History,” The Journal of American History 97:3 (2010): 703.


This post is part of a series of blog posts written by Dr. Charles K. Hyde Public History Fellows about their internships in museums, historic sites, archives, and more. The Dr. Charles K. Hyde Public History Fellowship offers financial support for Public History students to complete their internships.Stay tuned for more posts from this year’s Hyde Fellows about their internships.

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1 comment
  1. Carl Peterson said:

    Very interesting. A lot of different ramifications based on your comments. Hope it keeps the ball rolling. “Inside Out” prof would like to see this I am sure!

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