Sunday, September 12, 2010

Doing Time at Eastern State

A couple weeks ago I finally visited the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.  It's long been on my list of places to visit because I'd heard about their work with contemporary artists,  because I like big abandoned spaces, and because I'd visited Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin and was interested in how approaches to interpreting a prison might differ.  Far from doing time, it was instead an experience that led me in on several different levels.

I went with my 21 year old daughter, who's interested in art, not history, and we both found plenty to like.  It's a very free form experience.  The audio tour comes with admission but you don't need to go in any order and it's not necessary to listen to the tour to gain something--although I gained a great deal by listening.   I've been working on a project that includes labeling for audio tours--and the very clear labeling here was terrific--not obtrusive, but very clear and easy-to-find.

Because it's not fully restored,  there's also the opportunity to explore a bit, to feel like you're actually getting seeing a place that's undiscovered.   I appreciate the way not everything was fenced off.  There's something compelling about un-restored spaces that I think many historic sites, in the urge to "recreate"  forget.

The artist installations bring an entirely new dimension to the site.  Most are installed in the cells and they all deal, in some way, with prison life.  Whether it's sculpture,  paintings, or media installations, these works of art made the place come alive in a way that wasn't about recreations, but about internal life, internal conversations, internal thoughts.   There were useful labels and audio segments to help visitors learn more and understand the art--and its connection to the prison's former life and to issues that still concern us today.

And what did my daughter like?  The beautiful light for photographing.

Intriguingly,  my mention of this visit led to a discussion with non-museum friends about the motivation for going to these places, and wondering whether the future would hold visits to Guantanamo and other detention centers.    I'm appreciative of any site where the experience encourages conversation--not just about what was seen, but about what the present means and what the future holds.

And final best thing:  this sign as you left the museum.  I liked being given a reason to visit the website.  A bit hard to read, but it says, "You've seen the museum.  Why visit our website?" and then tells you what you'll find there.  Nice!

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