Monthly Archives: March 2017

Prison Museum

Eastern State Penitentiary: A Museum with a Mission.

Tom, one of the directors of the museum, met us at the cold, stoney entrance of the 19th century Penitentiary. Guards closed me in as I arrived, the gates making an eerie squeaky sound when they closed, which ended with a cold, metallic “CLAMP!” as they shut tightly. I felt fooled into entering, as the guard smiled coyly at me when I announced “Temple” upon my arrival. “Sure”, he responded with a twisted smile that caught up with me later.

The long, narrow stone hallway made me wonder how many people had turned around right there and decided to exercise their freedom. I tried to play along, walking as a prisoner may have walked, in rows of two at a steady pace. We entered the recently re-renovated synagogue, which was only welcoming because of the obvious warmth emitting from it. I was surprised at it’s cleanliness and the unimposing smell of the wood around us. Two skylights made the low ceilings tolerable, but I could not help but be claustrophobic here. I almost left the room on several occasions, but Tom was just too interesting.

Upon flipping down one of the wooden benches, he revealed the information placards and at the same time, the old entrances from the cell blocks to the once tiny open-air cell yards that at one time belonged to each cell, of which 4 were combined together at some point and given a roof to create the synagogue for the prison’s Jewish population. The walls smelled like stone. The width of each cell gave an indication of the size of the living spaces in which the prisoners of Eastern State resided during their sentences there. They were, in a word, small. I felt crammed in the room, though with 10 others, to begin with.

Here is a photo of Tom revealing the walls of the four cells behind the wooden benches, though you can’t see him.

The revealing wooden panel reminded me of the piece I read in  Letting Go? Shared Authority in a User-Driven World which was written by Mary Teeling when she visited the very unique “Dennis Server House Museum” in London. She describes the subtle uses that Dennis had for modern objects from our century, such as his Yankees baseball hat, as being strategically placed on a 19th century table amongst other 19th century things in a mostly 19th century home. These objects manage to co-exist in time, merging the histories of those who lived in the house. Though more intentionally presented here at the prison museum, the mixing of the old with the new allowed the observer to see through layers of time. It also made the synagogue seem all the more cozy, and as is it were part of some kind of seeming evolution of the penitentiary system.

Another example of this evaluation could be seen as the prison yard which was used as a baseball field, which also wasn’t always there. Prisoners; before the yard was opened up, were forced into solitude with only a tiny, individual prison yard. Seems like progress, right?

The next part of our journey revealed big news, and the biggest mission of the prison museum as it stands today. In being the first Penitentiary of it’s kind in the United States, the Eastern State Penitentiary seems to have some blatant contradictions.

But overall the contradictions far surmount the prison’s seeming social advancements. As Tom explained that since 1970, the number of individuals incarcerated in the prison system in the U.S. has sharply increased to astronomical levels, far above the levels of any other country in the World.

The museum’s current grand mission is to bring that information forth into the light, and when you see the larger-than life 3-dimensional bar graph exhibit they build showing the U.S. as literally towering above all other nations in it’s per-capita prison rate, it seems likely that the mission is likely to be accomplished. As visitors flock around the large scale graph and decipher it’s meaning it becomes a un-ignorable punctuation of the issue of mass incarceration  in the U.S. or as Tom puts it, “The greatest civil rights disaster of our generation”.

Here, the punctuated “Red” graph bar seems to rise higher than the prison Walls.

I had trouble getting this whole phallic object of prison rates in the picture!!

Zoom in to enjoy the huge discrepancy between Rwanda, the highest rate listed under the U.S., which is up at just under 800 per 100,000 humans!!

Levi Fox visit

To Trump or Not to Trump, Yes is the answer! Levi Fox stays on course to complete his vision of The Atlantic City Trump Museum Project.

When I first heard it, I was a little queasy….but then..

I realize now I may have pre-judged Levi Fox just a little bit about his Atlantic City Trump Museum Project. I thought it was something Trump was doing or actively a part of when he first asked what we thought it was. I assumed it was being set up to glorify his honor, and the thought made me feel immediately detached from Levi, who turns out to be about as personable as a person can be. First I found out that he is in charge of the project, not President Trump, and he works as a tour guide in  A.C. and he is from the area. Next I found out it is not Levi’s intention to glorify anyone. He is a real historian, which means he is obsessed with history and knows enough about it to know that, at least in the case of the Atlantic City boardwalk and A.C. itself, history is simply disappearing. Levi’s solution is to harness the immediacy and the attention which Trump has been getting as a catalyst for preserving some of this history that is rapidly disappearing and also to create a safe dialogue space about the very polarized issue of the 45th American President.

In the book Letting Go? Shared authority in a user-generated World, historian Nona Simon discusses a temporary exhibit the Denver Community Museum which utilized as she puts it, “visitor-generated objects” (Simon 32) , which is exactly what I thought of when Levi whipped out his little Trump insignia mariners cooler full of Trump casino and resort objects. These are some of the things Levi envisions in the museum and they include: a Trump Taj Mahal beach towel, a golden box from a Trump Resort hotel (which was really brass and made in Taiwan), a promotional deck of cards from the Trump-days Harrah’s on the A.C. boardwalk ( a nice die to go with it), and a lovely TRUMP logo windbreaker. All which were promo items for casino-goers in the hey-day of Trump’s boardwalk reign, which didn’t seem to end well, as Levi is careful to point out.

Good Luck Levi!!

Levi admits that protests may erupt outside his museum, and nasty comments back and forth might surface on internet related propaganda for his museum, but he welcomes this. He feels that this venue is a safe and meaningful way for people to air their grievances and fulfill whatever desires they need to fulfill, while they learn something that is both relevant and immediate to our world. It allows people to breath life into a now immediate history, but which someday become “real”. After the class, I told Levi about my uncle Larry who had lived and worked in A.C. during Trumps heyday and asked if he would like to interview him. He was very excited about this prospect. Similarly, in LettingGo… Simon talks about the Lodz Ghetto project, which was designed to have participants in the exhibit actively be a part of it’s historical process by providing bits of research on the whereabouts of holocaust survivors on-site (Simon 28).

Levi’s model fits in with the Simon’s 5 “necessaries” in order to generate satisfaction and interest in his museum (Simon 21) which include relevancy, a safe place to express oneself, and inclusion of many viewpoints. I will visit the museum, and hope Levi goes through with it! Good Luck!

Editor Joeseph N. Newland. Letting Go? Shared Authority in a User-generated World.  The Pew Center For the Arts and Heritage, Philadelphia. 2011.


The Urn

Yesterday we visited the Tyler Art School division of Temple,

Melissa Rachleff writes in “Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World” discusses how it is less analytical for artists to create projects which are very different from our past, nowadays we are constantly looking to the audience. Over and over arises the question of historical authority….who actually has it? Turns out, most of this “authority” is left to one big word. Interpretation. Members of the community , maybe former school teachers, and never irrellevant or forgotten; the artists who exist in life outside of the rules. As far as mu experiences as an artist, well, I have found it to be a naturally more collaborative process wins artists over more often than not. Melissa Rachleff seems to agree with me on that, we are constantly facing the issue of audience, and it is becoming more and more difficult. The bonus here is that artists, for the most part, they just don’t care about audience.

John Kuo Wei Tchen and Liz Sevcenko discuss the conventionalty of historical work as seemingly full of red tape, in a way. It may devalue the work of history automatically without even trying, possibly undermining a whole culture. A sort of “hidden history” is born from this, hidden from, as John Kuo Wei and Liz Sevcenko refer to as “a master narrative”.

And as for social conflict? Well, this religiously assertive depiction of an URN reflects directly on this artist who may very well be juxtaposed to the artistic social climate at Temple. The question is, Can we have that discussion? We mustn’t be afraid of simplicity, the URN, front and back, layden with the death scenes of Christ from the bible, mustn’t be perceived as oversimplified.

Not to remain trapped.