Eastern State Penitentiary

Our visit on Thursday left me with questions.

What is Eastern State Penitentiary?

Is it a museum?

Is it a historic site?

Is it a educational experience or an entertainment enclave?

It’s hard to answer these questions as Eastern State seems to fit them all. Sean Kelley, our guide and Director of Interpretation and Public Programming at ESP, gave us an enlightening peak at what Eastern State is today, and that answer is: all of the above.

To answer if Eastern State is a museum, let’s return to Peale and his museum. His concern, all these years ago, was  “what to collect, how to display it, and how to teach.” Eastern State collects experiences. Experiences of inmates, jailers, and Philadelphians. They display their collection in a historic site, the penitentiary. Inside these walls, Eastern State attempts to teach visitors about the history of criminal justice and the current state of criminal justice in the United States. 

In a past blog post on my blog, I discussed the nuances between history and memory. As academics, we get caught up in defining things. Everything must be defined and fit into categories; however, life isn’t like that. Eastern State’s own mission statement runs the gambit and covers such a wide spectrum of public history fields. It states:

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc. works to preserve and restore the architecture of Eastern State Penitentiary; to make the Penitentiary accessible to the public; to explain and interpret its complex history; to place current issues of corrections and justice in an historical framework; and to provide a public forum where these issues are discussed. While the interpretive program advocates no specific position on the state of the American justice system, the program is built on the belief that the problems facing Eastern State Penitentiary’s architects have not yet been solved, and that the issues these early prison reformers addressed remain of central importance to our nation.

This mission statement has not be updated since 1999, according the site’s personal website. It intrigues me. Has the site’s mission changed at all in the 18 years that have passed since this mission statement was decided upon. Kelley’s talk certainly made it seem like the site is still working on meeting its mission statement. The site’s fear to tackle race related issues shows that there is still room for evolution. Their latest exhibit, Prisons Today, only opened in May 2016 and The Big Graph was installed in 2014. With these dates in mind, I dug into the past exhibits of the site and found a lack of information available (a quick search on Google pulls up pages which reference past exhibits and timelines, but the links are dead). I can’t help but ponder the existence of time between the stated mission statement and the lack of information available. Amy Tyson discussed the grappling boards must do to meet the demands of their visitors while juggling with the intimidating past their sites have. Eastern State seems to struggle with the same problem. The Graph and the new exhibit are fascinating steps in the right direction, but what happened in the years between? I’d love to find out more about this. 

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