Museum ethnography: researching punishment museums as environments of narrativity

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Like all museums, punishment museums and sites of penal tourism are inherently political and moral institutions, offering cultural memories of a collective past. As environments of narrativity these are significant spaces in which the public ‘learn’ about the past and how it continues to inform the present. In line with recent studies about ‘dark’ tourist sites, this article argues that the crime/punishment museum and jail cell tour can – and should – be understood as an ethnographic opportunity for narrative analysis. Rather than focus on just the findings of such an analysis, this article seeks to provide a practical guide to data collection and analysis in the context of criminological museum research. Offering illustrative examples from a study of Texan sites of penal tourism (Thurston, 2016) it demonstrates how the history of punishment – as represented in museums – is an important part of cultural identity more broadly, playing a significant role in how we conceptualise (in)justice, morality and the purpose of punishment. In short then, this article discusses how we can evoke the ethnographic tradition within museum spaces in order to interrogate how crime and punishment are expressed through narratives, images, objects and symbols.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
JournalMethodological Innovations Online
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 30 Aug 2017

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