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A group of prisoners gathered on a landing area in a prison looking over a railing to the floor below
Credit: Andy Aitchison

Incarcerated: Contemporary Arts from the Victorian Prison will open in the new year. It is presented by the University of Birmingham and the University of Bath, in partnership with the Howard League for Penal Reform.

The exhibition of drawing, sculpture, crafts and writing by people serving time in HMP Liverpool and HMP Lincoln, as well as new photography from Andy Aitchison, and archival documents and interviews, will prompt conversations about living and working conditions in historical institutions today.

Incarcerated: Contemporary Arts from the Victorian Prison provides an opportunity to learn about life and work in these prisons today. It provides an opportunity for prisoners to share creative responses to their environment and explain how existing in these spaces impacts them today.

Professor Dominique Moran, University of Birmingham

The exhibition at MAC forms part of a research project, 'The Persistence of the Victorian Prison', which considers how the fabric and function of Victorian prisons have changed over time, and what it has felt like to live and work in Victorian prisons in the past and the present. It also explores what the persistence of the Victorian estate means for the contemporary prison system.

The project is led by the University of Birmingham’s Professor Dominique Moran, Professor Matt Houlbrook, Professor Yvonne Jewkes of the University of Bath, and Professor Jennifer Turner, of Trier University.

Through drawing, crafts, and creative writing, the incarcerated people whose work features in this exhibition bring the past to life.

Professor Matt Houlbrook, University of Birmingham

The Victorian era was the most significant period of prison construction in UK history. During the period 1842 to 1877, a total of 90 prisons were built or significantly expanded, as part of a concerted building programme.

32 of these prisons are still in operation in England and Wales today. Together, they hold about one in four currently serving prisoners. Since most are ‘local’ prisons, serving the courts and holding prisoners awaiting trial or sentencing, almost all male prisoners will have spent time in one at some point.

Dominique Moran, Professor in Carceral Geography at the University of Birmingham, said: “Incarcerated: Contemporary Arts from the Victorian Prison provides an opportunity to learn about life and work in these prisons today. It provides an opportunity for prisoners to share creative responses to their environment and explain how existing in these spaces impact them today. We hope that people come along and explore a crucial part of our history, but also our present.”

Matt Houlbrook, Professor in Cultural History at the University of Birmingham said: “Through drawing, crafts, and creative writing, the incarcerated people whose work features in this exhibition bring the past to life. In so doing, they show us how histories live on through the material fabric of the Victorian prison buildings in which so many people are confined today.”

Professor Yvonne Jewkes from the University of Bath said: “The creative work produced by prisoners tells us much about the pragmatics of everyday life in a Victorian prison, but it also reveals a great deal about the sadness, regret, tragedy, humour and hope that prisoners carry. Many gained confidence and a sense of self-worth through the creative writing and art they did. It’s a fascinating and inspiring body of work.”

Deborah Kermode, CEO and Artistic Director of MAC, added: “We are delighted to be working with the University of Birmingham to present their exhibition Incarcerated: Contemporary Arts from the Victorian Prison. We believe at MAC that anyone can be an artist, no matter their circumstances. We have a commitment to showcasing work made by people with marginalised voices, which is why the exhibition makes for a great partnership.”

Incarcerated: Contemporary Arts from the Victorian Prison is a free exhibition, opens on Saturday 13th January and is open until Sunday 18 February 2024 from 11:00-17:00.