TPYF - Young Offenders And Archives Unite For Groundbreaking Exhibition

By Richard Moss | 15 August 2008
a cover for a video called changes in society featuring pictures of prisoners from the Victorian period

Front cover of a DVD made to accompany the exhibition.

An exhibition currently travelling to libraries in North Yorkshire is the result of an innovative programme that has brought together the resources held by North Yorkshire County Council’s Record Office with the latent talents of lads from the local young offenders institute.

Phrases like innovative and groundbreaking are often used when describing projects that seek to bring collections, whether they be in libraries archives or museums, to new audiences. But this recently completed Their Past Your Future project in Northallerton is deserving of all of these adjectives and more.

With funding from the second phase of the Their Past Your Future Project, which aims to promote understanding of conflict, the young inmates from the Northallerton Young Offenders Unit (YOI) researched the history of their prison, and compared their own experiences with those of inmates from previous centuries. The result is an engaging and often moving exhibition, a version of which is now touring libraries across North Yorkshire.

The ‘lads’ as they are referred to by staff who worked with them on the project, began working on ‘Changes In Society’ in early 2008, when they were introduced to the Police Charge book from the County Records Office (CRO). This resonant archive included photographs, some of which were of young offenders.

Victorian photographs of a offendors holding up charge sheets from a charge book

Images from Police Charge Book of January 1871. © North Yorkshire County Record Office

“We thought this would stimulate the interest of the present day young offenders to investigate crime and punishment in the 19th century - which it did!” explained the Project Manager for the scheme, Ruth Rising.

“They were very interested in how young the children were who were sentenced and one of the offenders picked up on the case of Sophia Constable from Whitby who was 11 when she was sentenced.”

Sophia’s case is just one of the fascinating stories that can be seen in the exhibition, created and curated by the young men from the YOI, who also looked at material from the Green Howard’s Regimental Museum. It is currently showing together with physical artefacts lent by the archive of Northallerton Young Offenders Institute at the CRO.

A skillful balance of the artefacts and the documentary evidence, the exhibition shows how well archives and artefacts work together. Artefacts have the impact – items include a straight jacket and a bullwhip – but the archives bring a case history and a people side to it. For the young men who put the exhibition together it brings home that this is about people and it gave them a chance to reflect on their own circumstances.

“It makes it possible to talk about these things in a slightly more distanced way because it’s all about the past,” said Dr Keith Sweetmore of the CRO. “So there’s stuff in there that allows them to talk about how things are now.”

“Some of these topics are in a sense too close to home but what the archives do is put that at a distance. I think that’s a way of using the archives very well because there’s a resonance with their own situations.”

a photograph of a young man speaking in front of a display board

Karl presents his poster on Edmund du Cane and his prison regime. © Digifish Media Productions

As well as having time to reflect on their own circumstances, the lads also had to work hard and stretch themselves. One of the tasks they were given was to prepare a presentation about their part of the exhibition, which they had researched and developed.

For many of them this was the most difficult and nerve-wracking part of the whole process but it resulted in an Open College Network certificate in presentation skills and for many it gave them a confidence to do something they thought they would never be capable of.

For staff at the archives meanwhile, the whole process has proved to be one of the most rewarding experiences they have ever encountered.

“It’s been a great project. I think it’s not only a first for this record office, but it’s a first among record offices anywhere,” added Keith. “We're very pleased and very proud and a lot of my colleagues have been saying to me: ‘this is what I came to archives to do’”.

a black and white photograph of a young man holding up a chalk board with his name on it

Gregor Horsman, 1875, age 20. He gave his occupation as a fireman and was accused of unlawfully and maliciously inflicting grievous bodily harm upon James Farrell. He was sentenced to 12 months with hard labour. © North Yorkshire County Record Office

The exhibition took six weeks to prepare. The first week was an introduction to the resources and the beginning of researching the history of Northallerton Gaol using various resources prepared by April Stephenson of the Learning and Skills department at the YOI.

Weeks two and three were spent in the classroom preparing and discussing the form of the exhibition. Resources used were digital images from the CRO - Charge Book, Court Records from the Quarter Sessions, rule of Northallerton House of Correction.

The Schools Library Service also helped with appropriate material on Crime and Punishment as well as Law and Order - this was part of the Citizenship strand incorporated in the project brief.

A reference librarian sourced other texts on prison and workhouse life and the fourth week was spent honing the presentation skills of the young offenders in readiness for presenting their posters at the exhibition, which took place in the fifth week.

A final sixth week was spent completing folders, evaluating their work and also filming interviews with Paul Banks from Digifish Media Production who created a DVD about the project.

The latter was important to the success of the project. An important element has been the degree to which the process has been documented and contextualised. There are now two 'learning journeys' on the MLA Yorkshire website that really bring alive the complexity and positivity of the project.

a photo of a group of young men looking at a plan laid out on a floor

Young offenders working on the design of the exhibition. © Digifish Media Productions

“The danger with archives is that it can have impacts like this and the outcomes can be there and we don’t capture it,” added Keith. “I think that one of the most impressive things about this process is the degree to which that capture process was an integral part of it.”

Keith also believes the filming and recording elevated the project in the view of the participants.

“They sort of raised their game in relation to it and I’m not aware of any other projects that have such successful outcomes,” he added. “I think it’s something archives can do on a very regular basis but I think the rarity is being able to capture it and pass it on so that people can actually see it.”

The ambition with the records office exhibition is to circulate it among some of the prison education services in the region. Neighbouring regions, Hull and Durham, are already keen on using it. The hope is that it will become an active tool within the education services of young offender institutes and become accessible to the wider group of practitioners working with young offenders on schemes like this.

The exhibition is now at the CRO in Northallerton and a travelling version is currently going out to libraries throughout North Yorkshire from August 11 2008 until the end of August 2009.

The two "learning journeys" on the MLA Yorkshire website – are: "Changes in Society - Managing an Exhibition" and "Crime & Punishment - Sophia Constable".

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