Engaging prisoners

October 11, 2010

It might be hard to get prisoners to visit museums, but that hasn’t stopped two museums from involving them in their programs.

At the Imperial War Museum in Duxford there is an exhibition of drawings by prisoners from HMP Edmunds Hill on display in the main pavilion. There is a text panel that explains that for the past three years the Museum has been working with the literacy tutors at the prison. Every month the Learning Department makes available objects from the handling collections to provide inspiration for reading and writing activities.

Prisoners' art on display at IWM Duxford

They have also done some work with the prison’s art program, lending sketches by artist Brian Stonehouse, who served in the Second World War. He was taken Prisoner of War by the Nazis, and some of the sketches he made in Dachau were used as evidence during the Nuremberg Trials. You have to assume that the prisoners looking at the sketches today might relate to the artist’s work, even if the circumstances are different.

In Norwich, prisoners have also been part of a ‘people’s choice’ exhibition project. 60 individuals and groups were invited to select a work from the Museum’s art collection – including a group from a prison art program. With the assistance of a kit prepared by the museum’s Learning Department about’ how to respond to art’ each group was invited to create a label of up to 100 words. Participants were also allowed to respond creatively in a medium most suited to them. Some chose to express their thoughts in poems, a deaf group signed their label (which was shown on a video screen beside the work). There was even a group from a child care centre who chose an artwork based on taste! (They chose between a few still life paintings, and sampled the food depicted to make their decision.) Apparently visitors spent ages in the gallery reading the labels! The artwork that the prisoners chose was a seascape, and their label spoke movingly about the sea knowing no barriers.

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