The Prison/Museum Dilemma / by richard ross

I am slightly diverting from posting about juveniles in the justice system to ask a parallel question. Where do we learn to treat people who are different from us, as something other or something less?

There is something about the world I am working with now that resonates with the world that I inhabited in my past- the world of natural history seen through glass displays. These worlds have an eerie commonality.


Growing up visiting the world of natural history and ethnological museums, I decided to join the army of elementary school students that press their snot-glazed noses to the glass windows to look at the life-sized depictions of motionless, exoticized, eroticized and voiceless figures.

These figures have an odd similarity to the actual kids I have been visiting in juvenile prisons for a decade.

Who are they?

People of Color.


Time has been suspended for them.They are separated from physical touch.They are isolated from Nature.They are viewed from spaces where the artificial light is controlled outside the display or cell.The environment is extremely confined.Decisions about their placement has been made by others, often from another culture.The subject is from a culture that has been subordinated or abused by the dominant culture.They are often from a position of economic deprivation.They are isolated and not seen unless you enter a formal institution.

A “curator” is defined as a keeper or a caretaker of a cultural institution. How different is this than a judge or even a correctional institution that takes care of a society through isolation?

Children learn and build empathy to peoples they are otherwise not exposed to. If these natural history institutions present people in a manner that is harmful, dated and out of touch with the way we understand people who we live among today, do we do a disservice to these children who are forming the patterns of tolerance and intolerance for the rest of their lives?

What do we do with these displays? Are they the confederate soldiers’ statues of some of our most basic cultural institutions? Do we erase history rather than acknowledge and re-contextualize it? Or is it too damaging to remain as part of life’s curriculum?