Brown Bag Seminar, Wednesday 17th March 2010

Jane Samuels, Access and Diversity Manager, British Museum

'The British Museum Prison Collaborations, 2005 - 2009'

Three prison projects, beginning in 2005, had the key objectives of allowing a socially excluded group access to the museum objects, and putting the BM in the role of an agent of social change. The Throne of Weapons and Pharmacopia were used in Pentonville and Holloway prisons as a means of combating social inequality, using touch and handling to give the participants respect for the objects, and increasing their respect for themselves.

Pentonville Prison had only one counsellor for 1200 prisoners, and most of the population stayed in their cells for twenty three hours of the day. In Holloway, more than 50% of the female prisoners were on anti-psychotic drugs, 55% of them had a child under sixteen, and 30% of them self harmed. Many women have much emotional baggage, and frequently have to continue to deal with the external administration of their life, which is less common in men.

The projects aimed to engage approximately fifteen participants, and employed artists, prison staff, and curatorial and access staff from the British Museum. The exhibits lasted for a month, and each project lasted for a fortnight. They ended with an exhibition or sharing and performative event. In the current climate, the restrictions which are imposed upon activity in prisons are becoming more and more stringent. This had a huge impact upon how the museum could engage with the inmates, and it was a huge learning curve for both the prisons and the museum. In Pentonville Prison, the regulations were so strict that a group photograph had to be taken using painted portraits, in order that they didn't reveal their identity. Though many of the prisoners were using drugs in the prison, giving them access to biscuits and juice was a huge diplomatic problem. It is both ironic and very sad, then, that the project came to an end because a member of prison staff, who was a very productive and driving force behind the project, was found to be a drug user.

The Throne of Weapons comes from Mozambique. In 1977 the civil war broke out, and didn't end until 1992. It was devastating. In 1995, the Transforming Arms into Tools amnesty attempted to go towards rebuilding society. It was in response to this that the Throne was created from decommissioned AK47s by the artists Kester.

The idea was to use the Throne as a means of discussing and debating the themes of crime, violence, loss and death with the participants. Initially they swallowed the curatorial interpretation that the Throne was about peace and reconciliation, but many of them came to reconsider it as a glorification of weapons. There was an astonishing variety and unpredictability of responses towards it.

Seeing some of the pictures of the prisoners and hearing their stories is often painful. But there was, overall, a real positive engagement with the project. Strikingly, the prison teacher said that it enabled them to 'act like human beings' - which surely is a crucial thing in prisoner rehabilitation.

Cradle to Grave, created by Pharmacopeia, represented the life of individuals through the medium of their medication. A version of this was used to discuss life and heath, health and wellbeing and drug use in Pentonville. The respondents, including prisoners and staff were encouraged to use the exhibit to reengage with their own personal timelines, placing post-it notes at particular points. This enabled reminiscence and discussion around traumatic events.

When the project moved to Holloway, the same sort of issues were discussed, although there was a far greater emphasis upon family and children. For many of them, especially those in prison for the protection of the public, their future was unclear - some didn't know when, or even if, they would be freed, and often these were the most dedicated participants. One prisoner commented that they never finished anything in prison, and the fact that they were able to create tangible outcomes, in the form of a bag, was incredible for many of them. An interesting comment upon the importance that cultural engagement retains even in these circumstances. The timeline concept which was used in Pentonville was crucial, allowing for the discussion of previously unexpressed life experience. Here, there was a lot more conversation than at Pentonville, suggesting that it was a the social, rather than the creative aspect, which was critical. The situations of the two prisons were clearly very different, and the engagement of the inmates with the project at Holloway was based around the idea that they would be able to express themselves and be listened to. And many of the things they expressed, therefore, were dark and traumatic things which they had never before revealed.

While there were differences in the ways the participants reacted, some of the project outcomes were more general. They were exposed to stimuli and influences which they would not otherwise have had. Being allowed to handle objects, technical equipment and artistic materials allowed them to feel valued and productive. They were listened to, by artists selected deliberately because they were non-judgemental. They had a reason to get up, get out of their cells. Hierarchies in the prison, between the prisoners, the staff and the museum were broken down, and a camaraderie was built up. That amongst the responses came the comment that they were allowed to feel human again, shows the deep emotional power of the projects.

At the presentation, we were shown a video, inspired by the Throne of Weapons, one of the outputs of the projects. It was entirely the product of the prisoners, and they must retain the credit for it. All the storyboarding, the poetry, music and images were produced by them. It is an incredibly moving piece, shedding light on the life of the prisoners and giving them a voice. It has since been frequently shown at the British Museum.

How is such a project finished or sustained? These things need to be long term to be successful, but much of that is clearly down to funding and willingness. The projects are problematical, in terms of the institutional requirements and regulations, the British Museum's ability and knowledge, and the attitude and behavior of the participants.But they are so vital and crucial that they cannot be ignored. Such projects must continue, and I for one would advocate them.

We were all, I think, profoundly moved by Jane's presentation. Deeply affecting as hearing about them is, these are projects whose long term impacts are hard to assess. Both Pentonville and Holloway are holding prisons, and the prisoners either move on or return to the outside. The projects didn't match with the quantitative assessment frameworks of governments and institutions. But I think that most people will agree that it is not, perhaps, upon measuring those results upon which we should concentrate. You cannot reduce to quantitative data the joy and hope, and the evidence of hidden, and deep, intelligence, which being allowed to engage with such a project can provide.


Jane Samuels said…
Further to Jenny’s overview of my presentation - it’s important to note that the prison projects – although limited in their duration - were very successful irrespective of longevity or sustainability. Whether they are long-term or not does in no way impact on their success and positive impact in the short term. However, to maximise benefit – a longer term partnership is certainly more desirable.

Further, the collaborations were in fact qualitative and quantitative. The exhibits were located in the chapel precisely to enable up to approximately 500 prisoners a week to have access to them – thus maximising exposure and impact. Visiting the exhibition was also integrated into the Prison's learning agenda for the duration of the project – hence classes within the prison also independently examined pertinent issues around the exhibits / wrote poetry / created visual art.

Hence the artist led project must be seen as one part of a wider process of engagement made possible by the broader collaboration. As stated by jenny - the project proper was qualitative but it is important to recognise that the sharing of the Museum’s exhibition across the entire prison and the resulting creative output and discussion was quantitative.
Elee said…
Thanks for commenting, Jane. It's really interesting for us as researchers and commentators to think about the range of impacts.

What's quite interesting here is the question of degree of impact - we would expect there to be a range of degrees of impact depending on the degree of contact with the project, but also the openness of the participants to engage with the project. And there is also the issue of longevity - the longevity of the project itself, but also the longevity of the impact on the participants.

It sounds to me like this project impacted positively on a huge number of people to some degree. But what really impressed me was the suggestion that, for a certain group of people, this relatively short-term project had a massive (and therefore likely long term) impact on their lives.
Jenny said…
In a sense, the length of a project is immaterial - no matter how short, a project leaves traces of itself behind. Thank you for commenting on the post. I really enjoyed hearing about the project, I think it was a great thing to do. Many thanks.

Popular Posts