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Charles Forsdick, James Barrow Professor of French, spoke last month at an international conference in Lisbon about his recently launched project on prison museums as sites of memory. The event on ‘Colonial incarceration in the 20th century’ was held at the Museu do Aljube, the Portuguese museum of resistance and freedom, to mark the eightieth anniversary of the opening of the Tarrafal camp on Cape Verde.

The Museu do Aljube, the Portuguese museum of resistance and freedom

The Museu do Aljube, the Portuguese museum of resistance and freedom

Professor Forsdick gave a paper entitled ‘Remembering colonial incarceration: dark tourism and penal heritage’, and outlined in his presentation recent research on commemoration and places of incarceration, and linked this to developments in the heritage industry around sites of suffering and death. He has a particular interest in the transnational dimensions of penal transportation, and took in his paper the examples of Algerian prisoners in New Caledonia and prisoners from French Indochina in French Guiana to explore the relation between penal establishments, their colonial environments and postcolonial afterlives. The wider project of which the paper formed a part analyses the prison and penal colony as sites for production of multiple memories. The research explores locations such as the Bagne des Annamites de Montsinéry in French Guiana and the Musée du Bagne in New Caledonia, and studies these as postcolonial lieux de mémoire in which colonial incarceration is remembered alongside other forms of deportation and transportation.

The paper is part of the recently launched project, ‘Dark tourism’ in comparative perspective: sites of suffering, sites of memory, of which Professor Forsdick is Principal Investigator. The Liverpool-based Co-Investigator is Barry Godfrey, Professor of Social Justice in Liverpool, who is also lead researcher on the major Digital Panopticon project. The work is funded by the AHRC, as part of the ‘Care for the Future’ theme, in association with LABEX. A key collaborator in the project is Co-Investigator Annette Becker, Professor of Contemporary History at Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, and other project partners include Professor Hamish Maxwell-Stewart of the University of Tasmania. Whilst Professor Becker leads a parallel strand of research on Holocaust and genocide-related tourism and heritage (a partner is the Mémorial de la Shoah at Drancy in Paris, a site of incarceration of French Jews in WWII), the project team based in Liverpool will focus on penal heritage sites in metropolitan and non-metropolitan locations.

The site of the former Oxford Gaol, now a museum and boutique hotel

The site of the former Oxford Gaol, now a museum and boutique hotel

Professor Forsdick will be conducting fieldwork next year in French Guiana and New Caledonia. These sites will be studied in comparative perspective, not least with the many convict transportation sites used by the British colonial authorities in Australia that have been opened to the public and are an important part of the Tasmanian tourist and heritage industry in particular. (In 2010 six Tasmanian convict sites were inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage list in recognition of their historic importance and growing appeal as tourism destinations and places of remembrance for the descendants of transported convicts.) ‘Dark tourism’ has been the salvation of many former prison buildings in Australia and in the UK, since they are popular with the public, and because interest in what went on behind the prison walls has produced a valuable revenue-stream. Professor Forsdick has already visited a number of former prisons in the British Isles that now have alternative functions, including Oxford Gaol (decommissioned in 1996 and reopened in 2006 as a museum and luxury hotel) and Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast (closed in 1996 and reopened as a museum in 2010).

Memorialization at Oxford Gaol

Memorialization at Oxford Gaol

The project runs for a further twelve months, and will conclude with a conference in Liverpool in Autumn 2017. A comprehensive bibliography of scholarship in English and French on dark tourism has been prepared by the project research assistant Dr Wendy Asquith, and will soon be published; a special issue of a journal guested-edited by the project team will present interim research findings in the New Year. During the next academic session, Professor Forsdick has been invited to give a number of keynote lectures and other presentations on the emerging research, including at conferences in Australia, France, Ireland and Oman.

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