For centuries, people have been equally repelled and fascinated by prisons and the people confined within them.
Professor Alyson Brown is an expert on prison and criminal justice history whose innovative research into prison culture has shone a light on the personal experiences of prisoners – an aspect of prison history that until relatively recently has been largely neglected. Her work has also contributed to the transformation of two historical prisons into successful tourist attractions. This research has not only brought an understanding of prison history and heritage to a wider audience, it has also led to regional economic development through increased tourism.
My work goes beyond administrative and policy led approaches to prison history, and instead focuses on the lived experience of the prison. My aim is to highlight the enduing distance between the officially stated achievements of prison systems of the time and their actual impact on those incarcerated within them.Alyson Brown, Professor of History and Associate Head of Department
The impact of history on the future
The renovated Lincoln Castle and museum has played a key role in driving an increase in tourism to Lincoln and has helped to ensure the financial sustainability of the city. Between April 2015, when the project launched, and October 2015, the Castle received 237,000 visitors and generated more than £1,200,000 in revenue.
In 2009, Professor Brown was one of three specialist academics on the advisory panel for a project to renovate Lincoln Castle and the Victorian prison within it. Supported by the expertise of the panel, the Lincoln Castle Revealed Project (LCR) won £22 million in Heritage Lottery Funding and the prison was opened as a tourist attraction in 2015, welcoming 6,000 visitors in the first two days.
Professor Brown was instrumental in the development of the project and had a major role in the ultimate exhibition content by embedding authentic, local historical evidence into the interpretation and steered the researchers away from stereotypical and sensationalist narratives. She helped to ensure that punishment in Lincoln was explored in both local and national contexts to appeal to local and tourist visitors. The project received international media interest and won numerous awards, including runner-up in the National Lottery Awards Heritage Category 2015 and winner of the British Guild of Travel Writers Outstanding UK Tourism Project Award 2015.
Without [Professor Brown’s] advice, we would have run the risk of telling a very different story which would have been full of myths and stereotypes about Victorian prisons… This meant that the stories that we told in the exhibition films, interpretation panels and other aspects for the site, including the pieces of theatre that were developed, were authentic and historically accurate.LCR Researcher
Professor Brown’s unique research into prison disturbances and riots underpinned a major exhibition to mark the renovation of Dartmoor Prison Museum in 2017.
She produced the first in-depth examination of the Dartmoor Prison riot of 1932, the biggest and most widely known disturbance in England before the Second World War. Using archives that had only just been made available to the public, Professor Brown exposed the simplistic narratives about the riot that filled the press at the time. Due to this expertise, she was asked to collaborate with the Dartmoor Prison Museum on an exhibition dedicated to the infamous disturbance, which provided visitors with insights into the personal experiences of individuals involved.
Professor Brown’s two monographs on prison riots remain the only in-depth academic examinations of pre-WWII historical prison disturbances in England.
Due to Professor Brown’s material, visitors have gone away with a better understanding, and therefore, a more memorable visit to our museum.Curator, Dartmoor Prison Museum
Informing and educating
International interest in Professor Brown’s work is informing more people about important aspects of prison history and culture, and contributing to changing the public narrative around prisons and prisoners.
Radio listeners have heard about Professor Brown’s work through three programmes on BBC Radio 4, broadcast in 2015, 2016 and 2018, as well as a programme on BBC Radio 3 in 2019. She has also contributed several articles to BBC’s History Magazine, the biggest selling popular history magazine in Britain. Following her work on Dartmoor convicts, she was invited through the History and Policy Network to give a session at the Home Office in 2017 and a blog in 2020.
Our research means that…
Prison tourist attractions include authentic, local stories that focus on the lived experience of prisoners, giving visitors a more memorable experience.
Regional economies are boosted through increased tourism from opening up prisons to visitors.
The public have a better understanding of prison history that goes beyond sensationalist headlines.Find out more about Alyson Brown’s research by viewing her profile on Pure