A British Museum project at Pentonville Prison

British Museum, London

Jane Samuels, 15.04.2013
Since 2005 the British Museum has collaborated with different London prisons as part of its focus on reaching underrepresented audiences. Between 2005 and 2007, two initiatives took place in HMP Pentonville.

A third project took place in HMP Holloway between 2008 and 2009. The British Museum is exploring a future partnership with HMP Wormwood Scrubs.

The projects drew their inspiration from museum objects and exhibits. The Throne of Weapons (pictured below), a contemporary art exhibit by Mozambican artist Cristovao Canhavato (Kester) made from AK-47s, was exhibited in HMP Pentonville as the source of inspiration for the first project.

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A sister version called Cradle to Grave, a contemporary art installation located in the British Museum’s Wellcome Trust Gallery exploring pharmaceutical drug use over the lifetime of a man and a woman, was exhibited in HMP Pentonville and HMP Holloway as the focus of the second and third projects.

The projects were managed by the British Museum’s access manager and facilitated by curators and artists, who worked with groups of prisoners exploring handling objects and exhibits, and teasing out responses through a combination of creative mediums. They included music, visual art, poetry, photography, video and craft.

Evaluation

Prisoners in the UK can spend up to 23 hours a day in their cells, so the opportunity to handle objects from the museum’s collections, discuss reactions and experiment with a variety of creative mediums was seized upon.

Some of the prisoners were talented, producing outstanding work of an unforeseen quality and as each project progressed, they composed music, created visual art and wrote poetry.

The evaluator for the Throne of Weapons project in HMP Pentonville remarked: “...the group’s creativity was abundantly clear. Not only were they motivated, they were talented, doing great work with video and the written word, working towards a final product that would be emotionally moving and visually striking.”

Click here to read the evaluation report (pdf)

The positive impact of all three projects on the prisoners was evident through their focus, commitment and enthusiasm in addition to the culminating body of work.

One challenge is prisoners being relocated during the project, which causes disruption to the group as well as the individual.

Another consideration is the exit strategy; how do the prisoners feel when the project ends and the normal routine of their prison life resumes? How can the positive impact of the collaboration be maintained beyond the life of the actual project?

These are never easy challenges to resolve in a prison environment. But they shouldn’t act as disincentives to such positive and beneficial collaborations.

A comment made in response to the Throne of Weapons by one of the prisoners who was on remand for murder in Pentonville Prison reminds us of this: “The most powerful thing you can do is pick up a book, not a gun.”

Jane Samuels is the access and equality manager at the British Museum

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