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Using Empathy to Unlock the Stories of Holloway Prison

Beds in a five-person cell at Holloway Prison © Islington Museum

Holloway Prison has been an important landmark in Islington for over 100 years. Until summer 2016 it was the largest women’s prison in Britain. Many well-known prisoners have passed through its doors, and the prison has become notorious in the public imagination, but there are diverse voices which remain unknown and unrecorded.

Abstract: This article explores how empathy has been essential for developing close engagement and understanding of the stories of Holloway Prison, how activist groups have been crucial to the project, and how the project made space to work with vulnerable groups. Authors: Roz Currie, Curator, and Lottie Tempest Mountford, Learning Officer, Islington Museum. This article is based on a talk given at the Museum Ideas 2019 conference (Museum of London, 10-12 Sep 2019). Buy the Book of the Conference (250pp, £29.95).
First published online: 3 March 2020.

The Echoes of Holloway Prison project aimed to capture the stories of this highly significant place before they were lost following the closure as objects, people and networks dissipated. The project was led by Islington Museum from February 2018 to June 2019, in collaboration with Holloway Prison Stories and Middlesex University, and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. It represented a real opportunity for Islington Museum, the local history museum for the London Borough of Islington, to engage with a previously hidden community.

The project aimed to capture stories of the prison from across its history with a focus on oral histories and some collecting of stories on film; collection of personal objects and ephemera; and a wide-ranging engagement programme to connect with different stakeholders and individuals with an interest in the prison. The project sought to widen understanding and empathy with the hidden stories of women held behind the prison’s walls. By its nature prison is a place apart. It is cut off from many people’s everyday lives and personal experiences (Guest & Seoighe, forthcoming) often only seen through the limited lens of television shows such as Orange is the New Black. By documenting the lived experience of the women of Holloway Prison, we hoped to create more nuance and depth in people’s attitudes and understanding.

Centring Voices
From the start voices were key to the project. Project development continued in response to the oral histories and engagement with those who had been connected to the prison. This was practically achieved by centring lived experience and including diverse voices in the oral histories, on the steering group, and in general discussions relating to the project. Initial collecting of oral histories, ephemera, objects and images was undertaken in tandem allowing links to grow organically between objects and people’s stories. Layers of memory built around objects gave them meaning (see Box 1 with toothpaste which was found on the floor in Holloway Prison, post-closure). Information was captured on how the toothpaste tasted, how using it made prisoners feel and alternative uses for the toothpaste, reflecting the privations and limitations of prison life and their impact on the prisoners.

 

Oral histories carry an emotional load – being given the space to tell your story with an uncritical audience is a rare and validating experience. The oral history recordings themselves were emotionally laden, the very act of recounting traumatic life experience becoming an opportunity for catharsis. This had resonance with other oral history projects working with people with extreme life experiences such as Campbell’s account of working with women who had experienced the Vietnam War as Red Cross workers supporting traumatised soldiers (Campbell, 2018).

As the oral history recordings progressed the connections between project staff, the volunteer team and oral history participants grew, and the a resonance of the project became clear. Volunteers who had worked closely with oral history participants became personal advocates for the stories they had collected, amplifying the voices of those they had worked with.

As can be seen in Box 2 a somewhat unexpected additional finding related to trauma provoked by the closure of the prison. For many, being held at Holloway had been a terrible time in their lives, but for others, including former prisoners, prison officers and other people who had worked at the prison it had been a place of stability, normality and even ‘home’ (Echoes of Holloway Prison project; Cain, 2018). The closure of the prison was a shock and it was clear there had been no place for either the former prisoners, or others, to share their sadness or feelings of being cast adrift and a community dissipating. The oral history interviews again became a place of emotional release, an opportunity to talk about the pain of closure as well as the pain of other life experiences which led to yet stronger emotional ties between the interviewees and the interviewers. Safeguarding became yet more essential for protection of interviewees, volunteers and staff as these relationships developed.

Connecting with Emotions
Having appreciated the project’s emotional load during the initial collecting phase it was clear this needed to be carried through into the rest of the work undertaken. A key aim of the project was to widen audience perspectives on women in prison and those that work in prison. Connecting with complex and traumatic stories was crucial to meaning-making around the prison’s history and audiences needed support in engaging with these stories.

We aimed to strike a balance between telling the story of Holloway Prison through traditional exhibition means and the provocative, contradictory and emotionally-laden oral histories. Creating emotional access points was vital to allowing audiences to come away from the exhibition and engagement programme with a nuanced understanding of the prison’s story. This work was informed by the strong connections to the oral histories discussed above and in-depth ongoing project dialogue. These included collaboration with our partners at Middlesex University, Carly Guest and Rachel Seoighe. Part of their current work aims to explore the “everyday mundanities of incarceration through familiar, domestic objects…to make it difficult for viewers to push practices of punishment to the periphery and ignore the experience of imprisonment” (Guest & Seoighe, forthcoming, see Box 3). They chose photographs from the prison which would have everyday resonance for the viewer. Using facet methodology – an approach which ‘attends to the multi-dimensionality of the lived world and connections between different facets of experience’ – viewers could explore the lived experience of women in prison from a personal perspective (Mason, 2011: 75-92). This methodology acknowledges the interconnectedness of emotion and experience and the validity of empathy as a tool for understanding others’ lives (Guest & Seoighe, forthcoming). This again brings us back to the multiple meanings possible for each object and potential affective encounters with the humble tube of toothpaste (Box 1).

Our particular challenge was to take this idea to broader non-academic audiences. We all bring personal ‘baggage’ to everything we do. It was vital to give our visitors permission to use their own emotions and experiences when accessing these stories, for us to acknowledge their preconceptions and to allow them space to engage and develop their understanding.

Key elements to achieve this in the exhibition and engagement programme included carefully considered co-produced interpretation filtered through a range of individual emotional readings, spaces for discussion and for reflection, provocative questions to prompt more in-depth consideration of the subject and a wide range of talks and workshops including multiple perspectives to connect with different elements from academics (Box 3) to activists. Music from resident artist, Hannah Hull formed another transformative way into the stories. The raw quality of the music provided a sensory experience of the prison narratives, allowing audiences to feel rather than think about the personal experiences of women held at the prison (visit the website to hear the songs at https://echoesofhollowayprison.com/).

Concluding Thoughts
The Echoes of Holloway Prison project has collected diverse and fragmentary stories which are full of emotion, often contradictory and reflect myriad views of the former prison. To bring hidden stories from behind the walls of the prison to a general audience and support them in navigating complex and contradictory narratives required us to consider how emotion could allow audiences to connect with such stories. By undertaking an engaged and emotion-led programme of engagement the project allowed audiences to understand the monolithic idea of ‘Her Majesty’s Prison, Holloway’, as created by media and the state, on a much more human scale.

Connecting with the voices and experiences of women held at the prison on a person to person level ensured that they led the story and allowed multiple narratives to co-exist. To keep track of the impact of sharing the stories with audiences in this way, continuous evaluation, discussion and exploration was vital. Audiences left with a more nuanced and informed view of the experiences of those who were held at and worked in the prison, and were able to connect with the stories on a human level. Finally, the museum became a healing space and point of connection for those impacted by the prison’s closure from perspectives as diverse as prison staff, prison governors, Ministry of Justice staff, activists and abolitionists, former prisoners, charity workers and others with a connection to the prison.

Roz Currie, Curator, and Lottie Tempest Mountford, Learning Officer, Islington Museum

Authors: Roz Currie has worked as a museum and heritage curator for over ten years and believes strongly in working with people to make their voices heard. As curator at Islington Museum she has worked with local community groups, most recently in the Echoes of Holloway Prison project, but also looking at the fight against apartheid, the Spanish Civil War and the story of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act and its impact on gay men in Islington. As curator at the Jewish Museum she curated exhibitions including For King and Country? The Jewish Story of the First World War, Blackguards in Bonnets about Jewish Suffragettes and The Boys: Memory Quilts working with child Holocaust survivors. Lottie Tempest Mountford is the Learning Officer at Islington Museum. Recent work has included the Echoes of Holloway Prison project, developing engagement for Islington’s Pride (an LGBTQ+ archive for Islington) and community consultation for local townscape projects.

References

Cain C (2018) After Holloway: Consultation with women affected by the criminal justice system. Women in Prison. Available at: http://www.womeninprison.org.uk/perch/resources/after-holloway.pdf (accessed 7 September 2019)

Campbell, Rose (2018) “We Were Basically Counselors”: The Unintended Emotional Duties of “Donut Dollies” in the Vietnam War, Words and Silences, Journal of the IOHA

Guest, C & Seoighe, R (forthcoming), Familiarity and Strangeness: seeing everyday practices of punishment and resistance in Holloway Prison, Punishment and Society

Mason, J. (2011) Facet methodology: The case for an inventive research orientation. Methodological Innovations Online, 6(3), pp.75-92

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