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The below blog post is written by Edward Hammond, a student volunteer. Edward finished his placement with us back in January/February and wanted to revisit to see the changes. Here he shares his thoughts in a blog.
The decision to name the new museum, formerly the Galleries of Justice Museum, as the ‘National Justice Museum’ is without a doubt an ambitious undertaking; besides its purpose to inform and educate about the history of crime and punishment and the justice system primarily in the United Kingdom, it has faced the responsibility of conveying the history as something that visitors can and should relate to on not just a national, but also a noticeably international scale in its exhibitions (in my opinion). In addition to telling us information about many local individuals who experienced the British crime and punishment system, the museum’s new focus expands on this by explaining to us the relevance of these local events to the much wider social changes that occurred on a nation-wide scale, and indeed the impact this had on other parts of the world.
You could say that the museum’s namesake requires this, but the changes it has gone through are in my view necessary to successfully portray the museum as one that is truly ‘modern’. In being such a unique institution, the name ‘National Justice Museum’ is incredibly deserving and is a testament to its significance in informing us about the, to put it one way, darker parts of our history, and that history’s impact on social and political change worldwide.
In parts of the museum, you will encounter a temporary exhibition on the history of US civil rights, a Journey to Justice timeline which covers significant global events since the 18th century, and even a new section covering the Syrian refugee crisis. The latter is strangely and intriguingly situated in one of the old cells which – to me – presents a deep sense of empathy with those fleeing conflict as we are reminded of the parallels of their plight with the British convicts who underwent similarly vast and perilous journeys to lands thousands of miles away. This one similarity is especially potent, as it is one example of how the effective use of these contemporary events has catapulted the museum into the modern age by helping it to serve a much wider purpose and to attract a wider audience, which is one reason why I see it as more than a museum of simply national importance. Equally as important for the museum’s wider purpose is the incorporation of a section dedicated to the advent of protest songs in the 20th century. This includes a radio playing groovy tunes from the last century that, when you in fact listen to the lyrics, play a fundamental role in both causing and responding to social and political change that is central to the rest of the museum’s content.
But the museum brilliantly does not detract in any way from the history which it has always conveyed to us – the history of British crime and punishment and the lives of individuals who experienced the system at this very site. Each visitor is given a wristband with a convict number on it, and it is your task to discover which unfortunate individual you are and what fate awaits you! The new museum thrives off of new interactive elements which offer you multiple decision-making choices and enable you to find out for yourself who you would side with if, for example, you were a participant in the reform riots – what is the best way to get the government’s attention, peaceful protest explaining the need for reform or continued rebellious fervour advocating the destruction of property and seizure of food in order to force a response? Tricky. The questions and decisions posed to visitors and the answers we respond with are a contributor to our sense of self-identity.
Though the museum has undergone a considerable change – one thing remains the same – the site of the museum. The fact that we walk up the same steps where the likes of men such as Daniel Diggle and William Saville were publicly executed, and the fact that we walk in the same cells and dungeons as Victorian prisoners did, is the staple of the museum experience. Except, however, we are now continually reminded of the incredibly broad scope of the museum’s focus and relevance to the history of the country and indeed the world.