Skip to content

Interpreting Incarceration: How Historical Prison Museums are Addressing the Social Aspects of Criminal Justice

Thesis by Faithe McCreery (2015)

We are living through an era entirely unprecedented in the field of criminal justice. Never before has an industrialized nation incarcerated its citizens to an extent matching that of the United States in the last three decades. Yet while many museum professionals champion the potential for museums to impact the social well being of their visitors and of larger society, little is said in the literature about the practical implementation of this goal. The purpose of this study was to help bridge this gap between theory and practice, by describing the ways in which historical prison museums interpret the social aspects of incarceration. Data were collected through group interviews with staff, and content analysis of audio tours, at three historical prison museums that are recognized for their interpretation of social content. Study results suggest that interpretation of social issues requires both strong leadership and high-quality front-line staff; that the individuals who perform this work largely perceive the benefits of doing so as outweighing the risks; and that mission-enabling activities are an essential companion to mission-fulfilling ones.


Keywords: interpretation, social change, prison museums, case study, dark tourism, historical prison, incarceration, social issues


McCreery, F. (2015). Interpreting incarceration: How historical prison museums are addressing the social aspects of criminal justice. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. (Order No. 1599868). Available from Dissertations & Theses @ University of Washington WCLP; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1720832389). Retrieved from