At the end of 2014 Eastern State Penitentiary, a museum located near the heart of Philadelphia, created a program unlike any other in the history of the institution. Originally designed for silence and repentance, this site was fully functional from 1829 to 1971 through many transformations. After years exploring the history of incarceration, including stories of infamous prisoners such as Al Capone and the architectural innovations of the “wheel and spoke” housing model for inmates, the museum began to face a much more recent history. Serving as tourist attraction for thousands of visitors each year, the staff and board were increasingly concerned by the modern day experience of imprisonment in America.
The exhibit, Prisons Today, which opened this summer after three years of development, already demonstrates the museum’s commitment to ongoing dialogue with the efficacy of the U.S. prison system. They have dedicated considerable time, money and space to a deep examination of the Returning Citizen.
I was brought in as a consultant to assist ESP in their effort to incorporate authentic interpretation, relationship and evaluation into the process of hiring formerly incarcerated individuals. The staff had taken on the arduous task of naming mass incarceration as a key issue shaping the lives and outcomes of Americans. This issue is impacting every American with more than 2.3 million people in the United States prison system and more people incarcerated per capita than anywhere else in the world. However, the complexity of U.S. correctional systems reaches beyond the constraints of the jail cell. The lasting residue of a criminal record impacts education, voting rights and access to employment- ultimately creating multiple barriers to full citizenship. It’s an urgent and ubiquitous problem for any community, but particularly pressing in urban populations that tend to have notable concentrations of individuals who were formerly incarcerated. The institutional focus on the “returning citizen” was a small part of a larger goal in the examination of mass incarceration.
But this is uncharted territory for museums. Really uncharted. While many social service and policy organizations concentrate considerable effort to “reintegrate” formerly incarcerated individuals there are not too many museums that would touch this issue.
In an effort to authentically delve into the experience of modern day incarceration Eastern State Penitentiary boldly went where few museums have wandered. They envisioned a project co-facilitated and interpreted through the perspective of those who had the experience of incarceration firsthand.
The staff, prompted by a short term project grant seeking ambitious outcomes led by the project management of Lauren Zalut, was anxious to get started. However, there were a number of challenges to the project ranging from hiring protocols to shared authority. As an observer to the process and project consultant, the top of my list was battling implicit bias in staff language surrounding the project. The institution has been plagued by high turnover rate, even in paid docents. The need to share a common language about the project was vital to start the conversation and next steps. A second goal was to fearlessly name the key stakeholders and let them tell their own stories.
Eventually, three very specific questions arose in the search for alignment around empathetic engagement:
Shared Authority: Can we interrogate the narrative present in this site/museum? Are there ways to reach for inclusion of stories not previously heard/known that reflect the experiences of the crisis we have named?
For ESP this was a cautious process that took into consideration board, staff, volunteer and new hire perspectives on the project. This was not easy, requiring weeks of preparation and intentional tour preparations for the co-facilitator teams. The challenge also involved the current audience; visitor demographics were largely static: white, in their 30s and having never been incarcerated.
Shared Values: What grounds our work and belief that this experience is important?
This pilot program offered an opportunity to test an iterative process of tour co-creation and delivery that honored real individual experiences of incarceration. As a project consultant working with Eastern State Penitentiary as they piloted the program, I focused my efforts on avoiding the pitfalls of territorialism in storytelling. This is particularly important when the institution may be helping to create a window into heretofore unknown intimate details of an experience. Many Americans have never been incarcerated, but knowing the story of someone who is willing to share may help them build empathy and understanding.
Shared Experience: Can we do a tour experience that raises the awareness of all involved, while honoring the stories of the docents and visitors?
ESP defined success as follows: visitors leave feeling that they have understanding of multiple perspectives of the experience of incarceration. The museum was intentional in its pursuit of authentic engagement. Docents and co-facilitators trained, reviewed and evaluated their work as a group.
The questions raised were indicative of a profound shift in museum business as usual of blithely ignoring relevant issues in the community for the sake of the least expensive exhibit choices. Or choosing to turn away from tough topics in programing due to the insecurities of staff. Eastern State Penitentiary was in the midst of an emergent empathetic change. A new vision of their institution emerged from the social climate and rising awareness of mass incarceration. ESP crafted a new civic vision, facing head on the impact of mass incarceration in the U.S. with statistics AND stories. Their institutional body language profoundly shifted from telling a story “about” to telling a story “with” as they literally designed a co-facilitated experience that would honor multiple perspectives.
Check out the Maturity Model on this site to learn more about the stages of empathetic maturity. I’ve cited two key characteristics, civic vision and institutional body language- that reveal the emergent, yet critical nature of the work at ESP. As they shift to incorporate their learnings from this project into additional policy and practice ESP will be creating a bold model of empathetic advocacy and practices for institutions that have historically exploited the stories and experiences of those central to their sites. Use the link above to see the full rubric of The Empathetic Museum.
As is often the case when faced with choosing between status quo and choosing a new path to a greater truth, I think of Michelle Alexander’s response to the recent killing of Philando Castille. She acknowledges the difficulty of choosing the hard path towards systemic change. Alexander writes: But they knew they had to walk. If change was ever going to come, they were going to have to walk. And so do we.
Congratulations, Eastern State Penitentiary for taking the walk towards empathy.
Learn more about Eastern State Penitentiary's work here:
Lussenhop, J. (2016, May 11). Inside decaying US prison, former inmates are guides. BBC. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-36163247
McKeever, A. (2016, July 19). Eastern State Penitentiary and the Critique of Mass Incarceration. Pacific Standard. https://psmag.com/eastern-state-penitentiary-and-the-critique-of-mass-incarceration-c95d955dedfd