Prisoners in Philadelphia’s historic Eastern State Penitentiary spent 23 hours a day alone in their thick-walled cement cells, released for a single hour during which they still had no human contact. Established in 1829, the penitentiary pioneered solitary confinement, a practice that led inmates to experience paranoia, delusions, anxiety attacks, psychotic episodes, and suicidal tendencies—repercussions that went unaddressed for decades as more than 300 prisons worldwide copied the institution’s system of isolation.
Now a museum, Eastern State maintains an exhibit condemning mass incarceration and solitary confinement. The site’s conversion is among the case studies Stephanie Gibson, a doctoral candidate in the history of art, will feature in her dissertation about monuments of trauma in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Black Atlantic.
“I’m interested in how museums and commissioners and designers of monuments are interpreting sites with painful histories to help people move past the trauma that occurred there,” says Gibson, who has a bachelor’s degree in art history, criticism, and conservation from Emory University and a master’s degree in art history from Penn, and expects to complete her Ph.D. in spring 2023. “Working through trauma requires a listener. When we give space in our architectural landscape for stories of the oppressed to be told, we as a society are lending our ears to those stories, allowing for catharsis and healing.”
Eastern State’s explicit criticism of its own history exemplifies this phenomenon, Gibson explains. Through multimedia installations and an interactive tour that is sometimes guided by staff who were formerly incarcerated, the museum promotes criminal justice reform and shows visitors they are closer to the prison industrial complex than they might believe.
This story is by Karen Brooks. Read more at Omnia.