Making meaning out of punishment: penitentiary, prison, jail, and lock-up museums in Canada.

AuthorWalby, Kevin


From world-renowned sites such as Alcatraz in San Francisco to lesser known sites such as the Old Stone Jail in Beaverton, Ontario, penal tourism is popular. Penal history museums housed in former penitentiaries, prisons, jails, and lock-ups have been opened in cities and towns, as well as rural areas across Canada. Meanings of incarceration and punishment are communicated and interpreted within their walls. How these sites contribute to our individual and collective understandings of carceral settings and the experiences of the imprisoned has been the subject of criminological, sociological, and historical research (Morin 2013; Welch 2013; Ross 2012; Wilson 2011; Strange and Kempa 2003), but has rarely been the subject of in-depth scholarly study in the Canadian context.

To date, penal tourism research has explored the meanings of penality communicated to visitors through an analysis of museum displays in Australia, South Africa, and the United States, along with a few infamous jail museums elsewhere such as the Clink in London, England. Such studies have often revealed broad national meanings and the significance of punishment conveyed in these dark tourism sites, which focus on human tragedies for education and entertainment purposes (Stone and Sharpley 2008; Lennon and Foley 2000). For instance, researchers have explored how Australian penal museums use narratives from their prison colony past to explain the country's emergence (e.g., Wilson 2011, 2008; Strange 2000).

Little is known about the scope of Canadian penal tourism or how penal history museums in Canada compare to those found elsewhere. Ross (2012) conducted a global survey of penal history museums, focusing on those located in decommissioned carceral sites. He suggested that three such sites exist in Canada. However, there are several dozen more penitentiary, prison, jail, and lock-up museums in the country. These are often situated in rural areas and are not promoted widely (Luscombe, Walby, and Piche forthcoming). We have conducted observations and/or interviews at 45 Canadian penal history museums. Some of the museums located in decommissioned sites of confinement have been transformed into hybrid facilities such as jail museums that include a hostel or restaurant. There are also similar sites located in other buildings and spaces, such as the Federal Penitentiary Museum situated in the former penitentiary governor's house across the street from the now closed Kingston Penitentiary (KP) in Kingston, Ontario. While much of the penal tourism literature focuses on infamous sites in the United States and elsewhere, there are numerous small, rural sites where confinement and punishment are represented (Morin 2013), including many Canadian destinations where we conducted fieldwork.

Rather than offer a primarily conceptual intervention or an ethnographic investigation--both of which we provide elsewhere (see Walby and Piche 2015a, 2015b)--in the present article, we draw from field notes and interview data to examine the scope of penitentiary, prison, jail, and lock-up museums operating in the Canadian context. Offering a typology that we arrived at inductively to assist criminologists and criminal justice scholars in understanding cultural sites that shape public meanings of imprisonment and punishment, we analyse how architectural and spatial characteristics of the facilities, along with their historical and contemporary contexts and uses, shape the aesthetics and narratives of penality on display in larger and smaller museums across Canada.

The article is organized in four parts. First, we review existing literature on dark tourism and penal history museums to situate the focus of this Canadian study. Second, we provide a note on method and explain why we focus on lesser-known penitentiary, prison, jail, and lock-up museums. Third, we offer our analysis, commenting on the diversity of exhibits and themes explored in such sites across Canada, making comparisons with broad national meanings emerging from scholarship that has examined similar museums in the Australian, South African, and American contexts. We also explain some of the reasons for the rise of penal history museums across Canada. We conclude by reflecting on the significance of these findings for debates on penal tourism and penal intensification.

Beyond the big house: Existing literature on penal history museums

With the exception of research on penal history museums in central and eastern Ontario (see Walby and Piche 2011), no scholarly studies have examined this phenomenon in Canada. Most literature on penal museums has focused on sites located in Australia (Wilson 2011; Smith 2008; Preece and Price 2005; Dewar and Fredericksen 2003; Strange 2000), South Africa (Shearing and Kempa 2004; Deacon 2004; Buntman 2003; Shackley 2001; Hutton 1997), and the United States (Morin 2013; Bruggeman 2012; Brown 2009). There is a need to build on this research by diversifying the range of penal tourism sites examined, since the architecture and spatial configuration, as well as the historical and contemporary uses of these facilities, shape how confinement and punishment is represented to visitors. New empirical sites must be investigated, whether they are located in major urban centres or rural areas, to analyse how the narratives communicated in penal history museums are shaped by and shape local social geographies and histories (Schept 2014). Also, as noted by other scholars (e.g. Bruggeman 2012; Welch and Macuare 2011; Brown 2009), criminologists and criminal justice scholars need to examine such sites to understand how popular culture shapes public understandings of, and demands for, imprisonment and punishment.

There are many facets of penal history museums that deserve scholarly attention. First, the issue of historical revisionism is important. The way that a site depicts the past shapes the messages that tourists receive (Wilson 2011). Second, another crucial object of analysis is how well a museum explains the social and political aspects of imprisonment. For example, Bruggeman (2012) argues that some US prison museums illustrate the realities of life in prison, but do a poor job of examining the reasons why people end up in jail in the first place. Third, how tourists formulate interpretations of what they see in dark tourism sites is a crucial line of inquiry (Knudsen 2011). There are also issues of curation that are significant (see Wilson 2011; Brown 2009; Preece and Price 2005; Shearing and Kempa 2004). While we explore these issues in more detail elsewhere (Walby and Piche 2015a, 2015b; Ferguson, Piche and Walby forthcoming; Fiander, Chen, Piche and Walby 2015), here, we examine the scope of penitentiary, prison, jail, and lock-up museums in Canada to demonstrate the range of sites that exist, including smaller, lesser known, and more rural locales, and the diversity of displays therein, which shape how imprisonment is represented to the public in numerous ways. Put otherwise, more research on this topic should move beyond the "big house" (i.e., large, infamous prisons) to examine other empirical sites.

Ross (2012) has argued that most scholarship on penal history museums consists of case studies of single sites and that no broad analyses of the scope of penal history museums across the globe have been conducted to date. In his study, Ross selected three institutions for fieldwork (Alcatraz, Eastern State Penitentiary, and the Clink), which included on-site interviews with the directors of these tourist destinations. Data on 13 variables were collected, including country of origin, level of security, and the presence of a gift shop. His results indicate that 17 countries operate penal history museums, the majority of which are located in advanced industrialized countries, with the United States having the largest number (57 of the 95 museums). Most of these US museums are located in California, Colorado, and Texas. He found that the majority of museums worldwide operated as jails, prisons, or penitentiaries in the past and were subsequently converted into museums after the 1960s. Ross also discovered that approximately 10% of the penal history museums received between 10,001 and 30,000 visitors annually.

While his study provides valuable information on the geographic distribution of penal history museums and adds insights into the nature of such sites, Ross (2012) indicates that there are only three such museums in decommissioned carceral sites across Canada. We show that there exist many more, which take many forms. Our definition of penal history museums includes sites that are small, in rural locations, or are hybrid sites. Sites that are used to showcase penal history purposes from time to time are also included. The remote, rural sites in Canada that our research team encountered are little known. They often do not have websites, are not advertised, and are relatively unknown outside regional tourism networks (Luscombe et al. forthcoming). Yet such sites should not be ignored. Gordon (2008) uses the idea of "community exhibitions" to refer to museums and other cultural sites put together by local people and historical societies primarily for consumption by others in their social network and small numbers of tourists who may venture to their rural area. Likewise, Morin (2013: 10) argues that small-scale and local heritage sites with "no particular capital-generating potential" should be included in histories of the carceral, since these sites influence how people think about the punishments that prisoners endure and may shape public views of penality.

The fact that penal history museums shape individual and collective ways of thinking about imprisonment and punishment raises questions about the meanings found in these museums, big and small. It also raises questions about whether penal history museums legitimate operational carceral facilities at...

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