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Prison saved my life - the story behind Ripon Museums' Prisoners on Prisoners

Prison saved my life - the story behind Ripon Museums' Prisoners on Prisoners

Prisoners on Prisoners explores the comparative experiences of historic and contemporary female prisoners. It provides an opportunity for current residents at HMP Askham Grange to offer their unique and personal perspective on the prison system, in their own words, whilst reflecting on the stories of historic prisoners.

Using case studies from criminal record books in RMT’s collections, Faye Claridge and I, along with with a volunteer from the Ripon Museum Trust ran workshops with residents at HMP Askham Grange.  We asked them to ‘adopt’ a prisoner from the collections who they felt a connection with. Those who were willing were recorded speaking about the connection they felt, the comparison of their experiences and the way they felt when they looked at the collections.

Presenting prisoners on Prisoners

This audio forms the main part of the installation, which is housed in an original Victorian prison cell at the museum. Historic and contemporary ‘mugshot’ style photographs of prisoners are projected onto the wall, accompanied by the audio of the participants.

Large fabric wall hangings, combining historic and contemporary photographs presented with evidence of photographic decay, hang on two walls – these hangings make the cell feel claustrophobic, whilst exploring the idea of time and decay as a theme. Benches are printed with images from the museum collections, emphasising that this artwork is rooted in collections-based research.

The installation is moving, thought-provoking and honest.  The participants speak eloquently and perceptively about their chosen historic prisoner and through reflecting on the historic stories, they reveal much about their own crimes, their experiences of prison, and the effect it has had on their lives and families.

Surprising reflections

The women all praise the support they have received at HMP Askham Grange, which is an open prison designed to prepare women for their release from prison, through health and wellbeing support, education, skills development and work experience. Three of the women used the same phrase to describe this support: “prison saved my life”. 

The final artwork is receiving fantastic praise from visitors to the museum. Visitors have described it as “fascinating”; a “surprisingly stark, honest and unfettered account” that “haunts the museum”; and “heartbreaking”. This feedback supports RMT’s new approach to interpretation and curatorial work, which places greater emphasis on comparisons between past and present, and the increasing participation of people who are still directly affected by our themes of poverty, crime and punishment, and social justice.

To accompany the installation, we have created a temporary display exploring the history of HMP Askham Grange, with archive material on loan from the prison, and we will be delivering an evening talk about the process involved in creating the artwork on Wednesday 18 March. Tickets for the evening talk are £5 and can be purchased from our website riponmuseums.co.uk.

How Prisoners on Prisoners came to be

As part of our National Portfolio Organisation status, Ripon Museum Trust (RMT) has funding from Arts Council England (ACE) to commission four contemporary art works over four years. These art commissions are intended to offer a fresh perspective on our historic buildings and collections, whilst offering opportunities for a wide range of people to participate in or experience contemporary art, in line with ACE’s Creative Case for Diversity.

In 2019, we appointed Faye Claridge, a contemporary artist who often responds to museum collections or archives in her work, to create the second of these four artworks. The artist brief was deliberately non-prescriptive – we asked Faye to create an artwork for our Prison & Police Museum, connected to our 2020 theme of Women, and to work collaboratively with both internal volunteers and external groups. Over the space of a year, Faye responded to that brief and created Prisoners on Prisoners, which opened to the public on Saturday 8 February 2020.

Prisoners on Prisoners is on display at Ripon Prison & Police Museum until 6 September 2020. 

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