The old Sing Sing power plant
AP reported today that an old power plant at Sing Sing Prison is being considered as the site for a museum.
Immediately, for me, alarm bells rang. The report focused on tourist dollars a potential museum could bring in. I have a great fear that the proposed Sing Sing prison museum will replicate the cheap and nasty shock-exhibits common of so many prison museums. Sure enough the report mentions the electric chair “Old Sparky”, “a metal ‘head cage’ used when prisoners were transported” and a “display of prisoners’ weapons, from axes made in metal shop to shivs fashioned from plastic forks.” Furthermore, a famous 1932 escape attempt, infamous hired killers of the mafia, and Hollywood films are also mentioned.
Crap, they’re talking about brand and forecasting a quarter million visitors per year.
“Sing Sing is a brand name,” said John Wunderlich, president of the Ossining Historical Society Museum. “You go anywhere in this country, in Europe even, everybody’s heard of Sing Sing.”
It’s all to predictable. It’s all to blinkered. Ultimately, it will be damaging to our collective consciousness.
America doesn’t need another prison museum to prematurely historicise an institution and package, for consumption, the lives destroyed within. America does need a prison museum that engages communities; a museum that serves and forwards conversations about inequality, policing, poverty, the war on drugs, public education, mental health, the politics of crime and employment, restorative justuice and existing together.
This need is particularly acute at Sing Sing, which still functions as a prison with 1,600 men inside. Many of the prisoners at Sing Sing would be well positioned to contribute to the programming and exhibitions. In 2011, I visited Sing Sing and discussed photography, representations and public perceptions of prison and prisoners. We agreed that more needed to be done to help the public understand lives inside. Unanimously, the men did not think mainstream media representations of crime and prisoners were in any way favorable.
Actively talking about current controversies and thinking about how to present them in exhibition-form is way, way more difficult than putting a bunch of objects on view. But it is what is needed. We must set high standards and take on tricky, multi-faceted and collaborative ways of curating and programming in museums.
There’s many men inside Sing Sing who have thought about the American prison industrial complex for a long time. They are the experts. Let the Sing Sing Prison Museum give them a voice. Also, let the proposed museum give a voice to victims and to communities that are impacted by crime. Let the proposed museum give a voice to labor unions and to the formerly incarcerated.
Student in a Prison Photography workshop holding a Richard Ross print, Sing Sing Prison, NY, 2011. Photo: Tim Matsui.
There are plenty of prison museums but nearly all are at closed facilities. Angola Prison (official name Louisiana State Penitentiary) is exceptional in that it not only has a museum, it offers tours of the prison itself. But then, it also has a golf course and a rodeo.
I care deeply about the potential for prison museums and frutrated when the potential is wasted.
In 2004, I wrote a Masters thesis about the San Quentin Prison Museum (SQPM). Some background here. The museum is just inside the gates. It is now closed or maybe just sporadically open? It’s narrative ends in 1971, prior to the era of mass incarceration. In order to evaluate the narrative at SQPM I had to learn about California prison politics then. The facts shocked me then and shock me still. Looking at prison museums and the transferral (or not) of knowledge put me on my course as a prison activist and writer.
Prison museums for too long have missed the opportunity to engage the public in purposeful discussion. The single exception I would like to applaud would be Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) which, under the direction of Sean Kelley and colleagues, really grapples with modern day realities, with power & knowledge, and with the museum site as a nexus for exchange. ESP’s monumental sculpture Big Graph is an excellent case in point.
The Big Graph (2014). Photo: Courtesy Eastern State Penitentiary.
To close, I’d like to offer some suggestions for reflexive programming that the Sing Sing Prison Museum could pursue during its first few of years of programming.
– Partner with any number of schools and community organisations in New York city, for example The Young New Yorkers, The Red Hook Community Justice Center, Immigrant Movement International. The possibilities are endless.
– Commission themed, reflexive works from the prison population (in Sing Sing and in other prisons).
– Live performances by the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD) and similar groups.
– Photography exhibitions? All the research is right here on Prison Photography.
– Film screenings to coincide with programming. There’s plenty of choices.
– Any of the artworks (of all media) from the timeless PRISON/CULTURE project and book.
The options are huge. Hey, readers! If you’ve any other powerful art or cultural projects that attend to mass incarceration please add them in the comments.