Eastern State Penitentiary

Our site visit to the Eastern State Penitentiary was the one site visit I was the most looking forward too.  This was somewhere I had been wanting to visit for a long time, but haven’t had the chance.  I’ve walked past the penitentiary many times, and have always found the towering walls to be intimidating.  I imagine that is what they were intended to do.  Not only meant to keep people in, but also keep people out.  When we were given the background history of the prison, I was struck most by two things,  Firstly, that it was designed for solitary confinement, in order for the prisoner to repent successfully.  What struck me about this, was how contradictory that is to today’s prison system, where the objective is to punish rather then letting them the opportunity to repent.  The second point that fascinated me was the fact that the prison has only been closed for a relatively short period of time, and that it technically became a museum while still an operating prison.  I think this speaks to how the prison fits within the history of Philadelphia, and the history of the countries justice system.

Hearing how ESP has been able to not only generate high attendance rates, but also turn a profit as a historical museum, was a nice change of pace from a lot of what we have read and seen this semester.  A lot of what we have read and seen throughout the semester has been about how hard it is for historical museums to be successful given the financial constraints they are under.  This was certainly true for ESP, but they have been able to adjust over time and create a product that consumers want.  Ideally, history museums wouldn’t have to be so concerned with turning a profit, and more concerned with telling the story, but that is not realistic.  Finding that balance is one of the biggest hurdles of public history, because at the end of the day, you are still trying to sell something, and selling history, whether it is a broad history like at the National Constitution Center or a specific history like ESP, is a challenge.  Of course, it should not go without saying that the Halloween season and everything they have during this time, is a major contributor to their financial success.  However, even during the regular months, ESP has been able to create an experience better then most of the other places we’ve seen.  ESP’s new commitment to telling the story of race and inequality in prisons,  which is a major problem in America today, I think will allow them to continue their success.


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