I Setting the Scene for Museological Research

The Significance of Stories in Museum Research

Stories are an important way in which we make sense of ourselves and those around us. They can be personal tales of conquest or defeat, political narratives of power or resistance, sensational reports of morality or depravity. Some stories encourage a subtle change in routine while others incite people to march the streets demanding change. Some become legends cemented in time, others are destined to be forgotten even by those who tell them. Whether they make us laugh or cry, angry or relaxed, stories are everywhere—from Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species to the many infamous guests on The Jeremy Kyle Show, from the pedagogical parables of the Bible to my ‘Nanny Enid’ and her tales of my father’s childhood escapades. Whether we tell our stories to a global, local or familial audience matters not. Indeed we may even tell our stories in complete solitude. Irrespective of who is listening we live in a storied world.

Moreover, we often use stories to explain our actions both to ourselves and to others because they are the best way of describing the social world as it is lived by us—the storyteller (Plummer 1995; Polkinghorne 1988). Groups can also tell stories, and these narratives of the ‘collective’ act as a resource from which to construct our own understanding of the self (Presser 2009). Gubrium and Holstein (2008, p. 255) have described the stories we hear about the collective as a set of ‘narrative nesting dolls’; while any story told about ourselves is always (partially) local, it will also ‘reverberate within larger social stories and circumstances’. Any story- of-the-self will be embedded within a number of stories told about the collective, and these ‘narrative nesting dolls’ vocalise together to construct both individual and collective identity. For the purposes of this research then, the stories Texas—as a collective—tells about punishment have the potential to reveal the Texan commitment to harsh justice in more nuanced ways, allowing us to view the social world from the perspective of the storyteller. As outlined in the Introduction, many criminologists are telling their own stories about the Lone Star State, but few are listening to the stories Texas is telling. This research seeks to understand the Texan self-identity and its relationship with punishment as a cultural insider.

So where, as a non-Texan, would a researcher find these social stories? Local news reporting about capital cases was an option, but local media rarely cover executions in any great detail (see Jacoby et al. 2008). Similarly, of all aspects of the criminal justice process, prisons and the Department of Corrections more broadly receive fairly limited coverage (see Chermak 1998). Likewise, interviewing individual Texans would not really suffice; it was never the aim of this book to examine individual preferences and attitudes toward punishment. Instead it was the punishment stories of the collective which were of interest and, more specifically, the cultural justification narratives which manifest within those collective stories. While it might have been possible to examine the underlying narratives of punishment found in local news stories or through interviews, it was a more stable longer-lived story of punishment I was seeking and after much searching I found it in a somewhat unlikely place; punishment museums.

Museums have long acted as research sites in other disciplines, yet criminologists are only now beginning to realise their potential as storied spaces (see for example Brown 2009; Piche and Walby 2010, 2012; Wilson 2008). As part of the research which informs this book, I visited tourist sites associated with law enforcement and punishment in Texas.

In total I spent approximately six months travelling around the Lone Star State on Greyhound buses, and was able to visit, for example, the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville; defunct jail cells in Beaumont and Eastland; the Houston Police Museum; the Border Patrol Museum in El Paso and the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame in Waco.

In addition, I also toured the top visited historical sites in Texas. These included the Story of Texas Museum (Austin); the Alamo Shrine (San Antonio); the Stockyards (Fort Worth); the San Jacinto Monument (Houston) and the State Capitol (Austin). Many criminological accounts which seek to explain punitive punishment in the Southern states draw an historical line between the past and the present. For example, Nisbett and Cohen (1996) discuss the influence of the history of herding; Perkinson (2010) the history of racial unrest; Zimring (2003) the history of ‘vigilance values’; and Rice and Coates (1995) the history of gender roles. Taken together, this diverse collection of studies argues that the Southern past is a significant resource for understanding the Southern present.

However, as I have already made clear, my goal was a little different to those scholars cited above. I was less concerned with the reality of Texan history; instead my interest lay in cultural stories Texas uses to remember that history-the narratives of the collective. I wanted to explore the representation of a Lone Star past, and where better to look than the top visited historical sites in Texas. Indeed, as I will discuss further in Part IV of this book, the reputation Texas has gained as a place of harsh punishment was not confined to the stories told in punishment museums; this reputation for toughness likewise revealed itself in historical sites of the Lone Star memory.

The content of the stories told within both the historical and the crime/punishment related museums will provide the basis of subsequent chapters so I shall not dwell on them here. Instead, I want to take this opportunity to explain why (and how) I believe we should approach the museum as a research site. It is my hope that this can provide something of a template for future museum analysis, while simultaneously illustrating the importance of museums as ‘repositories of cultural memory’ (Crane 2000, p. 4). Museums are spaces in which national and regional self-identities are constructed and negotiated (Kaplan 1994), and as such they could-and should-be of the utmost importance to criminologists interested in the cultural construction of meaning.

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