The Texan punishment identity: Stories of execution and incarceration in Lone Star Museums

Dr Hannah Thurston

Senior Lecturer in Criminology (University of Brighton),

Stories about crime continue to captivate audiences all over the world. From fictional accounts of notorious gangsters to the biographies of real-life serial killers, criminals and their crimes both terrify and fascinate us in equal measure. Similarly, the punishment of offenders is big business in the culture industry. Prison movies have always been a sub-genre of the crime film, but in more recent years we have also seen the proliferation of prison and death row documentaries, each promising to show us the hidden realities of life behind bars. However, while certain representational formats have received much attention from punishment scholars (namely film and news media), other storied spaces – such as punishment museums and prison tours – have gone somewhat unnoticed until recent years. We are only now beginning to see the systematic analysis of penal tourist sites from a criminological perspective. This paper then, will consider the stories Texas tells about mass incarceration and the death penalty within tourist sites associated with punishment. Drawing on a museum ethnography undertaken in the Lone Star State, it will outline and analyse various narrative features found within the Texan museum stories. These features include, although are not limited to: a modernisation motif; humanising instances; dynamics of spectatorship; the use of humour; the abolitionist story; and the memorialisation of correctional staff. As this paper will argue, museums offer a unique opportunity to understand how a collective narrates its own relationship with punishment past and punishment present. Prison museums and jail cell tours are significant sites in which meanings are made and opinions formed. It is for these reasons that criminologists are now beginning to take tourism seriously.


Dr Hannah Thurston is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Brighton (UK). She joined the University in 2013 having completed her PhD at the University of Kent. Hannah’s research focuses primarily on prisons and punishment. Having undertaken research in Texas (USA) she has since published Prisons and Punishment in Texas; Culture, History and Museological Representation. The book explores the stories Texas tells about its own reputation for harsh punishment within sites of penal tourism, and considers those stories within the broader socio-political context of the Lone Star self-identity.


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