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Using Museums as Sites for Criminological Research

Museums are important sites within the culture industry because as narrative environments they perform a variety of functions. These are best understood in terms of actions and objects. Unlike film, books, plays or TV shows, museums collect, preserve, study and communicate the meaning of objects, providing the museum visitor with tangible elements enhancing the power of the narrative (Weil 1990). Indeed, the primary concern of the museum is the ‘generation, perpetuation, organization and dissemination’ of information (McDonald and Alsford 1991, p. 306). Arguably closer in narrative terms to documentaries or news reports, museums apply ‘factual’ knowledge to construct their stories. As Preziosi (2012) suggests, circulating knowledge using narrativity makes that knowledge accessible to a greater audience. However, what differentiates the museum from many other cultural products is that all of this is achieved within spatially defined boundaries; within the walls of the museum.

The experience of visiting a punishment museum or taking a jail cell tour, of ‘experiencing’ the stories told within them, is also important because unlike the stories told so often in films or books, museums are intended to be (re)presentations of reality. Rather than fictional accounts, as Prentice (2001) makes clear in his discussion about ‘evoked authenticity’, museums tell stories using images, objects and historians’ accounts which serve to validate their own existence. This awards the museum- as-storyteller a level of authority that other cultural storytellers rarely achieve (Crane 2000). While this authenticity may at times be ‘staged’- that is curated in highly specific ways, appearing to offer an entrance to a ‘back-stage world’-the audience is still likely to perceive the experience as authentic (Walby and Piche 2015). In short, even when compared to cultural products which also purport to reproduce reality (notably news reporting) the museum tends to employ ‘indicators of authenticity’ and will thus likely be interpreted as factual or more accurate (Jamal and Hill 2004). Museums are understood by the visitor to portray the reality as opposed to a reality.

However, what makes museums particularly interesting is that while visitors may believe they are having an authentic experience, learning about the version of events, they are actually playing witness to a cultural construction; one which has gone through many processes of negotiation (Brockmeier 2002). Much like any other cultural story told about reality- be it found in a documentary, history class, news report or film ‘based on a true story’-museum narratives are the final product of human intervention and interpretation (Brown and Davis-Brown 1998). By exhibiting one object as opposed to another, by telling one person’s story in place of somebody else’s, certain events, people and places become marginalised or excluded entirely from the narrative.

Thus, using museums as research sites offers an opportunity to examine what is remembered by a culture about its history, or in the case of penal tourism what is remembered about punishment past and punishment present. In turn then, we are offered a window through which we can see how a collective chooses to represent itself to the public; we can explore museums as expressions of ‘national or regional identity’ (Macdonald 2012, pp. 274—83). While cultural forgetting is no doubt influenced by practical concerns such as funding, staff expertise, physical storage/dis- play space and the ability to acquire or interpret objects, as Brown and Davis-Brown (1998, p. 17) suggest, this merely functions to reduce an explicitly political question of ‘who’ to the technically instrumental question of ‘how’. The political-moral decision to forget becomes narrated as a non-political and non-moral strategic necessity. In short, the ability to exclude and to marginalise some stories while prioritising others makes both the museum and the museum narrative (that is the stories which make it into the representation) inherently moral and political stories.

In addition, museums perform an explicitly educational and pedagogical function (see Hooper-Greenhill 1994). In the case of this research, the penal museums seek to teach their audience about the reality of punishment in Texas. The authority awarded to museums as storytellers of the ‘real’ (Hein 1999) means that museum collections—the interpretation and organisation of exhibits within the museum spaces—are ‘inextricably linked to identity’ (McLean 2007, p. 109). In short, they are institutions able to (re)present and reflect stories about events, people and places, while simultaneously (re)constructing and (re)composing their narratives in order to provide the audience with a commentary on both national and cultural identity. Museums are a way of ‘making sense of ourselves’ (Kaplan 1994).

We have long known that history museums, along with history classes, movies, documentaries and TV dramas, are the cultural spaces in which memories of history are given meaning and significance (see Brockmeier 2002; Clemons 2008, Chap. 2; Fehr 2000). Punishment museums function in much the same way. As cultural sites they tell us stories about the reality of punishment and give those realities meaning by placing them within narrative structures. Furthermore, punishment sites construct a place-based narrative of a social reality, and as Jamal and Hill (2004) suggest, that narrative then feeds back into the social reality by becoming part of the tourists’ conception of place. Museums are—from a cultural criminological perspective—important sites because not only do they offer cultural stories about punishment, they are also sites which help to construct a social reality. The symbolic role of the museum is to be an expression of an imagined cultural identity (Macdonald 2012), or in Kaplan’s (2004) words, museums have the potential to teach us about ourselves. How then should we—as criminologists—approach these sites of symbolic significance? What should we be looking for and where will we find it?

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