Annual Meeting Preview: "Philadelphia Past/Present: Public History and Contemporary Relevance"

Eastern State Penitentiary. 1920s Facade with Cars, courtesy of the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site

This session takes place on Friday, April 5 at the 2019 OAH Annual Meeting in Philadelphia and is solicited by the OAH Public History Committee

Chair: Erin Devlin, University of Mary Washington
• Annie Anderson, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site
Josh Perelman, National Museum of American Jewish History
• Nora Quinn, National Constitution Center
• Ivan Henderson, African American Museum in Philadelphia

Tour the Eastern State Penitentiary

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Philadelphia Past/Present: Public History and Contemporary Relevance

At the 2019 Annual Meeting the OAH Committee on Public History has organized a panel titled “Philadelphia Past/Present” to explore how local public history organizations are underscoring the contemporary relevance of the histories they present. Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site is one of the sites the committee looks forward to highlighting in the panel. While in Philadelphia, conference attendees can visit this historic prison, but they can also engage with questions about the American criminal justice system in the era of mass incarceration at the site’s celebrated exhibit Prisons Today.

Below, Committee Co-Chair Erin Devlin interviews Annie Anderson, Manager of Research and Public Programming at Eastern State Penitentiary, about the historic site’s interest in focusing attention on contemporary corrections and exploring connections between past and present. 

Devlin: What do you think most visitors expect to see or experience when they visit Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site?

Anderson: Most of our visitors come to Eastern State Penitentiary because they want to have an immersive experience in a 200-year-old abandoned prison. Many of them know that the prison is a stabilized ruin--“a haunting world of crumbling cellblocks and empty guard towers,” as we say on our website. Nuanced reflection on the state of American criminal justice isn’t necessarily a motivating factor for most of our visitors, but our reputation as a site of thoughtful dialogue around justice issues is growing. I think visitors are sometimes surprised that our site weaves contemporary issues into our interpretation as much as we do, but many folks are interested and open to having that conversation. 

Devlin: Why do you think it is important for your site to extend the conversation with visitors beyond the historical period when the penitentiary was operational?

Anderson: Many people consider criminal justice and mass incarceration as the civil rights issues of our times. To remain relevant, museums need to reach new audiences, spark dynamic conversations, and show that their sites matter. It wouldn’t make sense, from a relevancy perspective, for us not to talk about what’s happening today.

We recently rewrote our mission statement to be more explicitly focused on interpreting the legacy of criminal justice reform. The founders of Eastern State were committed to reforming the criminal justice system of their day, and we continue their legacy. Eastern State was the first true “penitentiary,” designed to inspire regret, or penitence, in the hearts of its inhabitants. Not only was the prison ideologically significant, but the building was an architectural marvel, with advanced plumbing, heating, and ventilation systems. It had running water and flush toilets before the White House, and it inspired the design of more than 300 prisons around the world.

There’s a through-line from the work the founders did--to wrestle with the purpose of prisons, to ask difficult questions, and to try to come up with more just systems--to the work that the historic site is doing today.

Devlin: What are some of the strategies the site has used to connect its tangible history with issues of contemporary relevance in the criminal justice system?

Anderson: We ask a lot of questions throughout the site. What should we do with people who break the law? Why are there so many Americans in prison? What are prisons for? How would you like to see the prison system change by 2020? We’ve learned so much from working with the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. Their staff has trained our tour guides in dialogue facilitation. Their whole ethos of asking open-ended questions and listening without judgment has completely transformed our interpretive program. We welcome a diverse range of perspectives, and we genuinely want to hear what our visitors think. Asking questions is a way to shift institutional power away from the site and towards the visitor, and it’s a technique to get our visitors thinking actively about their own role in the criminal justice system and how they can shape it.

A few years ago, our education team started a program to hire formerly incarcerated people as tour guides. They can choose when and how to reveal their lived experience with incarceration if they want to, though they’re not required to. The purpose of the program is to humanize the issue of mass incarceration, to build empathy for people impacted by prisons, and to have a guide who can expertly juxtapose their own experience of contemporary prisons with the history of Eastern State--to build a tangible bridge between what’s happening in prisons now with what happened in prisons then.  

Deciding to explicitly tackle contemporary justice issues has completely transformed our site and our team. The work we do involves a continual conversation with as many people as possible about the legacy of this building and what we want for our justice system now and in the future. Our role as a conversation convener around complex criminal justice issues is a major part of our identity now.


Please join us in Philadelphia to learn more about how Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, the National Constitution Center, the African American Museum of Philadelphia, and the National Museum of American Jewish History make meaningful connections between past and present by engaging visitors, curating new exhibitions, revisiting permanent collections, and creating innovative special programs.


Annie Anderson, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site
Erin Devlin, University of Mary Washington

Posted: February 27, 2019
Tagged: Previews, Conference, Public History