The only way to explore the Galleries of Justice is through a guided tour. Waiting for the tour to begin you cannot help but notice how small and narrow the entrance to the building is considering how grand it looks from the pavement outside. It turned out to be deceptive though and the tour, which takes you along winding passages, underground cellars and up copious amounts of steps soon reveals just how huge the former courthouse and prison is. There has been some sort of prison on the site since the 15th century, although the current building was built in the 1870s after a fire destroyed the previous building so its relatively 'modern.' There are a few relics of its gruesome past including a copy of some stocks and the last gibbet which was used to display the rotting remains of some criminal, in bloodthirsty Leicester of all places.
On beginning the tour, everyone is given a ticket with a convict number on the back. At various points in the tour there are boards with the number printed on and then you can find out which 'convict' you are meant to be. Its an interesting concept as it is supposed to put visitors in the mindset that they are the inmates meeting the people who would have taken care (ha ha) of them whilst they were in prison. For me it was not entirely effective, partly because I discovered that other people had the same convict as me so it removed the opportunity to claim them for yourself, and it was until near the end that you found out what your convict looked like. Also the 'convict' sometimes changed through the tour so that was another blow for identification. It was not personal enough and suffered as a result.
The first 'experience' takes place inside the huge county courtroom, which has retained all its original features and fittings from the 19th century. Its pretty impressive. Scattered around the room there are various static models of Victorian ladies and gents which are distracting and not really necessary. The costumed interpreter turns out to be part of the court but I cannot remember what her role was supposed to be, and picks on four volunteers to take part in a mock trial. Unfortunately it's a bit flat with four people who are not so keen to be involved but they do their parts valiently and our accused 'man' gets sent down to the prisons below. This was our cue to traipse down after him, leaving our first actor behind in the court room.
We emerged in a cellar where, after passing an unfortunate model woman being burned for forgery, we bumped into our next actor, who was dressed as an 18th century gaoler. He was very engaging and was more lively than the previous interpreter. Not only did we get to hold some shackles, which were heavy enough to convince you of the inhumanity of some of the punishments of the past, but we learnt that convicts had to pay for the privilege of having a less crowded cell or food that was not inedible slop! I remember learning about this at the Tower of London and being baffled by it the logic then. Even worse, gaolers were not paid so they were effectively forced to bribe prisoners in order to cover their own needs. Seems very peculiar to me how the whole system managed to work - it obviously didn't hence the huge period of reform in the 19th century. As part of the experience we also got to see what it was like being in a cell (one of the nicer ones) with the door closed, it wasn't that bad because there was enough light to see by and it was much cleaner than it would have been in the 18th century!
Leaving the gaoler we came to the women's part of the prison. In the past only five or six women would have been kept in prison at a time, but they would have been guarded by a fearsome Matron, who was the third actor we met. She showed us the bath house, where all prisoners were washed (30 at a time in the same water) and had their heads shaved on entrance to the prison. Next we saw the laundry house and the women's cell with one bed for everyone and scratchy blankets, tiny fire and (then) no glass in the windows. There was a very young child with the group and if it had not been for her the Matron character might have been more terrifying, however it seemed that she held back a bit.
By now you were feeling a bit rushed and with little time to look over the exhibits and scattered text panels properly. However the next part of the tour was actor-less so it slowed down and turned into a more conventional museum visit. After the women's prison there was an opportunity to look round the debtors prisons and the 'pits' reserved for the poorest or most dangerous prisoners, carved deep out of the rock beneath. Sadly they felt the need to put in more of the tatty looking models which rather spoiled the atmosphere created by the building. In fact the building is the greatest asset in creating a sense of empathy and emotion - it is not lost on you that you are in a real prison where real people were kept in these cells for entire days, only being let out to walk round in silence in the exercise yard, or engaged in tough and arduous work in complete silence and not even being able to look up. I'll return to the impact of this later.
After the cells there was a chance for fresh air in the Exercise yard - made more poignant by the gallows and memorials to those who had been hanged upon it. The next part of the exhibition attempted to explain what happened when prisoners were transported to Australia, but it seemed half finished and so made little impression. A very good part was to follow, however, an exhibition of the collections of HM Prison services. It was a diverse array of uniforms for prisoners and wardens, reconstructed cells, various objects that prisoners had swallowed in order to be sent to hospital (including a sharp looking fork!) and other bits and bobs. Unfortunately no photos were allowed but the display was very good with large display cases that showed the objects in good light. Particularly compelling was a former cell decked out in pictures from the 19th century of prisoners looking sternly, shyly, or directly at the camera. It was important because it showed that prisoners came from all walks of life and all ages, and they were real pictures not models. Previously there had been a few life size pictures of inmates but these had been rushed past during the tour. Curiously I didn't find myself wondering why they were in prison (and anyway there was no information to tell you).
Final things of note included a strange experience about a man condemned to de for hanging. To the voiceover of a hangman talking prosaically about his job, there is a vignette of more tacky models showing a man about to hang, whilst on the wall are the recollections of a father who was waiting for 9am when his son would hang. It was a bizarre display, both poignant and hideous at the same time. I could see why they had a warning sign outside. It was interesting that they chose here to put a small voting box as to whether visitors thought capital punishment should be brought back. The 'NO' box was of course full to bursting... I couldn't help but wonder what the results would be elsewhere in the gallery. Back in the main entrance there was also a small exhibition to Oscar Wilde and his incarceration for homosexuality, a crime in the 19th century. It was an interesting display although it was marred by a loud voiceover of a poem (Ballad of Reading Gaol I presume but it didn't tell me anywhere what it was) and sloppy spelling / formating mistakes in the text panels. There were lots of celebrity messages of support which I guess where to counteract any criticism of such an exhibition.
Overall I found the experience interesting and a good attempt to bring the building to life. I found it especially interesting that the Galleries offers no moral judgement on the prisoners - in fact it seemed to me that it was the reverse and they wanted you to sympathise with them. I got this impression from the fact that in the court 'trial' featured a reform act rioter who was convicted to hang in 5 minutes by the jury (clearly a travesty of justice); the bad conditions of the prison were emphasised at every point and a voiceover in the woman's prison was of an inmate who had been wrongly imprisoned for stealing. The idea of having a convict number, whilst it did not engage me emotionally was obviously meant to create empathy, and the room full of photographs contained a small mirror in which you were meant to see your own face and think that you too could have been a 'criminal.' Yet there would have been some inmates who were there for proper horrible crimes and so I am not sure where my sympathies lie! Still, the HM Prison Services asked a lot of questions about whether you felt prison was fair etc and by not giving you any answers enabled you to question your own beliefs and attitudes about crime and punishment. It was a shame that there was no real space in which to reflect on these questions and perhaps air them. The visitors book which invited you to do so was full of vacuous comments so did not encourage any sensible responses - it perhaps needs a more focused question.
I hesitate to say that I enjoyed my experience only because I am wondering whether it is ethical to gain enjoyment out of people's trauma and misery, even if their experiences are far enough now in the past? The models made me feel uncomfortable because they seemed somewhat tacky in such a serious place and reminded me of places like the London Dungeon where they hype the gore up for commercial reasons. Maybe its a bit po-faced but I felt at the moment the Galleries of Justice sits somewhere in the middle of over-the-top tourist attraction and serious attempt at conveying the experiences of 18th and 19th century prisoners. It is due an overhaul I think and it will be interesting to see how it develops in the future.