The Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site’s Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration exhibition won first place in the 2017 Excellence in Exhibition award presented jointly by the following Professional Networks of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM): Curators Committee (CurCom), the National Association for Museum Exhibition (NAME), the Committee on Audience Research and Evaluation (CARE) and the Education Committee (EdCom). The exhibit was also awarded the Media & Technology MUSE award for “Postcards to Your Future Self,” a digital interactive in Prisons Today, and the EdCom award for Innovation in Museum Education.
The nation’s first exhibition devoted to the topic of mass incarceration, Prisons Today, has received wide national attention since its opening in May of 2016. One reason this is true is an unusual strategy the museum decided to implement—admitting it is not entirely neutral. The opening panel, for instance, compares crime rates and incarceration rates over time, and simply states, “MASS INCARCERATION ISN’T WORKING.”
The exhibit is also noteworthy because it is sometimes staffed by tour guides who have themselves been incarcerated. “The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, by far, with 2.2 million citizens in prison or jail, and yet we have no national prison museum,” said Sean Kelley, Senior Vice President, Director of Interpretation and Public Programming at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site.
One Excellence in Exhibition judge noted that the exhibition confronts, “the audience’s privilege, incoming views on criminal justice, and who is a criminal.” The museum also chose to be inclusive in developing the exhibition by using community brainstorming to change and improve initial prototypes.
“Powerful exhibit with relevant subject matter.” (Judge’s comment)
“Many Americans view criminal justice reform as the civil rights challenge of this generation. It’s time to address this subject with honesty and critical thinking, and there’s no better place to do so than Eastern State Penitentiary,” Sean Kelley.
About Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site
Eastern State Penitentiary was once the most famous and expensive prison in the world but stands today in ruin, a haunting world of crumbling cellblocks and empty guard towers. Known for its grand architecture and strict discipline, this was the world’s first true “penitentiary,” a prison designed to inspire penitence, or true regret, in the hearts of prisoners. Its vaulted, sky-lit cells once held many of America’s most notorious criminals, including bank robber “Slick Willie” Sutton and Al Capone. Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site is located at 22nd Street and Fairmount Avenue, just five blocks from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The penitentiary is open seven days a week, year round.
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