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Sing Sing Museum-2

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.

Prison Photography Workshop, Sing Sing

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.

– Exhibitions such as Geographies of Detention, No Bingo For Felons, Voices Of The Incarcerated. Heck, I’ll send over Prison Obscura.

– 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.

– Plumb the archives of existing projects such as WUWM’s I Am More Than My Record. I Am … or One For Ten.

– 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.



A couple of months ago, I wrote about the prison convict ship Success and its repurposing as a museum ship in the early 19th century. At that time, I featured a couple of images of the ship docked in Seattle and Tacoma. To continue from that visual anchor (pun intended), I’d like to share these few close up images of this unique and long-gone “Museum Ship of Colonial Horrors” (as I like to refer to it).


3029429307_4c6c2ec7d1The accoutrements of abuse on display are chilling. The international seafaring exhibit was an old British and latterly Australian ship used for deportation of ‘criminals’ during Victorian times and for non-human commodities thereafter.

I wonder what sort of museological interpretation of Success was given to American audiences? Would this have been kept in a separate narrative to the slavery ships of the Atlantic or would all histories be foisted into one macabre reductive appreciation of the ‘Other’?


3029428449_3f46a11ca91When I saw the iron jacket I was terrified, but then I read Wystan‘s description of the Wooden Maiden:

If you were very naughty, you might be asked to remove your clothing and climb inside this vertical coffin, where of course it was pitch dark, there was no water, and fresh air was scarce. Then the box (which was clad in sheet iron) would stand in the hot sun until you got nice and warm. But you wouldn’t want to slump or faint, because then your bare flesh might get snagged on the ends of the long nails that had been pounded into it from random directions . . .


All images from the Library of Congress on Flickr,

and searched out through Flickr Commons.

Capt. H.D. Smith of SUCCESS, Date Unknown. Glass negative. George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress). Call Number: LC-B2- 2611-3

Capt. H.D. Smith of SUCCESS, Date Unknown. Glass negative. George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress). Call Number: LC-B2- 2611-3

A couple of weeks ago I gave a nod to subtopia’s article on Floating Prisons. This is a topic that gets more meaty the more contemporary the examples become. The intrigue levels reach new heights when the 21st century, nautico-military gun-vessels are spear shaped, warp radar detection and travel quicker than your average barracuda. Concomitantly, the further back one ventures, prison ships are mired in the shameful times of slavery and the dirty deeds of colonial conquest.

There is a period between these two paradigms, when American authority locked up American pioneers on prison hulks. When the western expansion became western settlement, predominantly centered about San Francisco, the authority of the time needed a “bulk” solution to the settling and incorrigible population. The quickest solution to the quickest lawlessness on the continent was the prison ship.

Image: Telstar Logistics (Source)

San Quentin Prison. Image: Telstar Logistics (Source)

In 1851, the first prison on the west coast of America was established at Point San Quentin, but when it was established it was not bricks and mortar but beams and gulleys. The Waban, a 268-ton wooden ship, anchored in San Francisco Bay, was outfitted to hold 30 inmates. Subsequently, inmates who were housed on The Waban constructed San Quentin which opened in 1852 with 68 inmates. Unfortunately, I could find no images of The Waban.

I think it is interesting that a “prison-as-terminal” was immediately necessary when humans reached the edge of a continent. San Quentin prison replaced the archipelago of local jails across America as a permanent and expanding facility – the final stopping point for California’s early lawless contingent.

It is poetic that the first penological-structure chosen (based on practical needs) was one that straddled land and water; permanently moored, but temporary in its utility. Carceral use demotes the ship to ‘container’ and The Waban, like its inhabitants, entered its demise.

Success convict ship, no date recorded. Image: Library of Congress

Success convict ship, no date recorded. Image: Library of Congress

Anyway, just to prove its not all bad news for prison ships, above is one of the most famous. Success was reincarnated as a global museum traveling the world purportedly as a museum demonstrating the transportation horrors of the British Empire.

Here’s the skinny, “Constructed in built in Natmoo, Tenasserim, Burma in 1840.  sold to London owners and made three voyages with emigrants to Australia during the 1840s. On 31 May 1852 the Success arrived at Melbourne with emigrants, and the crew deserted to the gold-fields, this being the height of the Victorian gold rush. Due to an increase in crime, prisons were overflowing and the Government of Victoria purchased large sailing ships to be employed as prison hulks. These included the Success, Deborah, Sacramento and President.

“When no longer needed as a prison ship as such, the Success was used as a detention vessel for runaway seamen and later as an explosives hulk.

“When the Victorian Government decided to sell the last of its redundant hulks, Success was purchased by a group of entrepreneurs to be refitted as a museum ship to travel the world advertising the perceived horrors of the convict era. Although never a convict ship, the Success was billed as one, her earlier history being amalgamated with those other ships of the same name including HMS Success that had been used in the original European settlement of Western Australia.

“A former prisoner, bushranger Harry Power, was employed as a guide. The initial display in Sydney was not a commercial success, and the vessel was laid up and sank at her moorings in 1892. She was then sold to a second group with more ambitious plans.

“After a thorough refit the Success toured Australian ports and then headed for England, arriving at Dungeness on 12 September 1895 and was exhibited in many ports over several years. In 1912 she crossed the Atlantic and spent more than two decades doing the same thing around the eastern seaboard of the United States of America and later in ports on the Great Lakes.

“The Success fell into disrepair during the late 1930s and was destroyed by fire at Lake Erie Cove, Cleveland, Ohio, while being dismantled for her teak on 4 July 1946. (Source)

Prison ship SUCCESS, Seattle, 1915. Photographer Unknown. Image: University of Washington Digital Archives

Prison ship SUCCESS, Seattle, 1915. Photographer Unknown. Image: University of Washington Digital Archives

The Success passed through the Panama Canal and spent 1915/1916 on the Pacific Coast. She drew huge crowds in Seattle. I found the image above at the University of Washington Archives, which was my main reason for constructing this post. Success also docked in Tacoma in 1916.

Around 1916, the exhibition prison ship "Success," from Melbourne Australia, was docked at the Tacoma Municipal Dock Landing and open for tours. Marvin D. Boland Collection, Tacoma Public Library. Series: G50.1-103 (Unique: 31555)

Around 1916, the exhibition prison ship "Success," from Melbourne Australia, was docked at the Tacoma Municipal Dock Landing and open for tours. Marvin D. Boland Collection, Tacoma Public Library. Series: G50.1-103 (Unique: 31555) (Source)

I guess I just like the fact the Success was repurposed so many times and for a long period of time was a museum to the macabre. Some commentators were bothered by Roger Cremers recent World Press Photo win in the “Arts & Entertainment” category for his photographs of Auschwitz tourists. I guess ‘Dark Tourism’, or Thanatourism, has always existed. 21st century generations may not be as perverse as we perceive.


A timeline of Success and An obituary for Success


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