Cartes postales du bagne

site visit #14. musée de Nouvelle Calédonie

Musée de Nouvelle Calédonie, Nouméa
19 July 2018

There are a number of museums located in Nouméa which provide a wider history of the territory. We decided to start with the Musée de Nouvelle Calédonie as it provides a wider perspective on the history and geography of the territory as well as the surrounding Pacific regions. The ground floor is dedicated to Kanak objects and their more recent representation by local artists. These representations are defined in terms of a ‘parcours iconographique’ or ‘picture path’.

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The museum claims to have the second largest collection of Kanak objects after the Musée Quai Branly in Paris. This seems at once wrong but also perhaps inevitable. It also raises the question of who and what a museum is for and what different groups of visitors can learn and appreciate from seeing objects in glass cases. One of the main criticisms toward the Musée Quai Branly is its often apparently thoughtless juxtaposition of objects from different periods and regions with different uses or symbolism based on the similarity of their shapes or aesthetic. (See, for example, Edward Rothstein’s critique in The New York Times)

The space in the Musée de Nouvelle Calédonie avoids this perhaps carnivalesque approach and time is taken to carefully explain different objects and their function. Upstairs the space is given over to objects from nearby regions including Australia, Melanesia, Polynesia, Micronesia, allowing for some comparison but without reducing this to cacophony.

There are a few references to the bagne made in the museum and these within the context of a small corner displaying interactions of the Kanak population with the colonial administration including most notably the Kanak revolt of 1878. A commemorative cane which was given to Edmond Hayes, Director of the Pénitencier Agricole.

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Perhaps the most important item related to the bagne is a statue of a Kanak man carved by a bagnard on Île des Pins. The label reads:

‘La sculpture dite «en mie de pain » présentée ici comporte l’inscription «fait au pénitencier de l’Ile des Pins en 1898».
Le nom de l’homme qui l’a créée, en 1898, reste inconnu mais l’on sait qu’il avait fabriqué deux figures similaires, l’une d’un homme, l’autre d’une femme. Leur propriétaire, un surveillant militaire de l’administration pénitencière à qui ces statuettes ont été données, a tenu à les transmettre à chacune de ses deux filles. Cette statuette a été achetée en 2008 à l’un des arrières petit fils de cet homme.’

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Another item I came across was a painting of a bagnard signed J. Peres. The signage laments that the artwork which was donated sometime in the 1970s or 1980s was not adequately catalogued. It also suggests the bagnard is a forçat rather than a political deportee because he is clean shaven. SF

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Map #3. The two hemispheres

Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney
15 July 2018

As with other penal heritage sites especially those related to convict transportation and the role of convict labour in colonial development, Hyde Park Barracks makes extensive use of maps throughout its exhibition. Notably there are huge floor maps on the ground floor which work to explain how present day Sydney evolved from its earlier function within the penal colony. This is a similar approach to the one taken at the Camp de la Transportation in Saint Laurent du Maroni with its ‘La Ville en chantier’ exhibition. The intention here is, to some extent, to validate convict labour in the making of the contemporary town and its infrastructure. The use of floor maps is also interesting in that they demand visitors to literal ‘walk over’ the re-presented history of the space Borges-style.

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Huge floor map with key at Hyde Park Barracks

But the map that I found most striking at the Barracks was a large re-presentation of a map made in 1800 depicting the ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ Hemispheres. The map is used to mark the different European uses of convict transportation at various locations. This is interesting because it is possible to see French penal transportation in relation to other European colonial powers. Of course the main purpose is to emphasize the extent of transportation to Australia.

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Western Hemisphere featuring references to transportation to French Guiana and New Caledonia

Site visit #7. Saint Laurent du Maroni Pt3

Part 3. Guess who

La Ville en chantier exhibition

Case 12, Camp de la Transportation, 22 June 2018

Saint Laurent du Maroni did not exist as a colonial town before the arrival of the Administration Penitentiaire. This is, of course, not to imply an absence of life or community but rather better understand the legacy of the bagne on the area’s present-day infrastructure. As will be discussed in several posts about SLM, the Camp de la Transportation is a complex site which perhaps provides a starting point for understanding penal heritage as multi-sited not exceptional. The Camp de la Transportation is a hub for multiple different community-led activities which exist both separately from but also draw on the site’s history. This is especially clear in the history of the library.

Another example is the ‘La Ville en chantier’ exhibition located in Case 12. The exhibition is located on the two floors of the Case, one of the former dormitories where convicts sent out to work in and around SLM and neighbouring forest camps would return to sleep at night. The exhibition charts the evolution of the town and the surrounding area from before the arrival of the A.P. until (almost) present day (2011). The exhibition uses a range of different but low-fi techniques to visualise the space including giant floor maps and scale models (more on this from CR).

My attention was drawn to a customised ‘Guess Who’ game. Instead of people, each card featured a different building. We had been discussing how different activities and indeed games might constitute a way to explain the multisited and complex nature of the bagne to different audiences. I’ve been toying with the idea of a Top Trumps style card game of famous and less famous convicts, guards, doctors and other individuals associated with the history of the penal colony in French Guiana. I’ve also been thinking a bit about a board game charting the journey of the bagnards from deportation to repatriation via failed escapes, réclusion and doublage. This draws on conversations I’ve had with various colleagues in French Studies around colonial board games. However, the idea of Guess Who didn’t occur to me and yet now seems like a great way to engage people of different ages both local and visitors from elsewhere in thinking about architecture and looking more closely at buildings one might pass by or take for granted. The type of questions one might ask one’s opponent would vary according to your collective knowledge and thus range from the basic visual markers shown on the photographs to more complex historical and personal references. If we have time to revisit the exhibition before we leave French Guiana at the end of next week then I will challenge CR to a game!

Site visit #7. Saint Laurent du Maroni Pt2

Part 2. The musée du bagne

21 June 2018

The museum at the Camp de la Transportation in Saint Laurent du Maroni is housed in a small yellow building on the edge of the Camp. Divided into three distinct parts, the building once housed multiple operations – the salle anthropométrique where bagnards were photographed, fingerprinted and had their skulls measured plus other distinguishing features noted; the main kitchen and the camp’s chapel.

Where the guided tours of the camp, which provide exclusive access to the Quartier de la réclusion, are aimed at giving visitors insight into the organisation, life and especially suffering of the bagnards undergoing extra punishment in the prison within the prison, the museum does something else quite interesting in its mapping of its exhibition onto the historic spaces of the building.

For example, the museum does not reconstruct the original operations as is common in prison museums. However, the salle anthropométrique provides a series of exhibits, displays and text which focus on the arrival and processing of the bagnards including a walk of mug shots and display cases featuring a colour meter and skull-measuring device. In the corner of the room there are full length display cases featuring uniform belonging to the director and a guard. These seem to frame or reaffirm the surveillance implemented by the anthropometric documentation of the bagnards.

However, most striking in the display is the large photograph of bagnards still dressed in metropolitan clothing heading with kit bags down a road in France on their way to being transported. At the centre of the photo, which takes up the entire space of the display wall and is the first thing you encounter on entering the museum, a young, smartly dressed black man has turned to meet the gaze of the photographer. He seems to challenge this gaze and moreover the idea that this is a spectacle for public consumption. He doesn’t so much force one to look away but he does seem to be asking that we think about why exactly we are looking. It is only after meeting his gaze that we then encounter the display of mug shots presented on the reverse side of the display wall. This set up seems to demand a different engagement than the often ad-hoc poorly explained mug shots found in other prison museums.

The kitchen constitutes the main part of the museum. The original fire place is still visible but the story of the bagne is told via 4 display tables each with a single object:

1. Bell

2. Plan

3. Guillotine Cigar Cutter

4. Coconuts engraved by convicts

Cloth banners hang from the ceiling featuring photographic prints of bagnards and the heavily tattooed libérés discovered by photographer Dominique Darbois on her visit to French Guiana in the late 1950s in search of the Tumuc Humac. The room feels spacious and uncluttered yet there is a remarkable amount of information offered by the displays.

The Chapel

Where the main area of the museum focuses on key themes including ‘Evasion’ and ‘Surveiller et Punir’, the chapel takes as its theme questions of charity, humanity and salvation embodied in particular by the story of the closure of the bagne and the work of the Armée du Salut (namely Charles Péan) alongside the reports of Albert Londres that drew widespread public attention to the horrors of the penal colony during the 1920s. The chapel also addresses the problem of the abject poverty which was the general experience of released convicts forces to stay in French Guiana under the system of doublage.

The final panel, which in a sense concluded the museum exhibition, describes the repatriation of former bagnards once the bagne closed. A final convoy of 132 bagnards were repatriates in 1953. Testimony from the last surviving bagnard, Ali Belhouts, given as part of an interview in 2005, two years before his death, provides a moving account of the indelible mark left by the bagne.

Belhouts was repatriated to Algeria in 1952

“Tous les soirs, je rêve de Cayenne, tous les soirs, je suis à Cayenne, quand j’y pense, j’ai le vertige, j’y ai passé ma vie.”

It is the deliberate ambiguity, the affective experience of remembering evoked in this final statement that offers, I think, an appropriate conclusion to the museum narrative. An absence of closure which is somehow also a form of closure.

Site visit #7. Saint Laurent du Maroni Pt1

Part 1. A la recherche des vestiges…

Journée nationale de l’archéologie
Centre d’Interprétation Architecture et Patrimoine (CIAP)
Camp de la Transportation, Saint Laurent du Maroni, 15 June 2018

This will be the first of several posts on Saint Laurent du Maroni. Although the former Camp de la Transportation is home to a museum, guided tours of the quartier de la réclusion as well as CIAP, the town’s architecture and infrastructure continues to bear the marks of the bagne and its history. Throughout the town there are public and private buildings that once former the administrative quartier. Unlike Cayenne the town did not exist before the arrival of the AP in 1858. It maintained its role as bagne after the penal operation in Cayenne had started to wind down. In this respect SLM is the prison town par excellence. Although today its cultural heritage draws on the different populations in the area as well as the biodiversity of its natural heritage most notably that resulting from its location on the Maroni river on the border with Suriname (there are numerous creeks and waterfalls to visit) the bagne is nevertheless a central narrative in the town’s past and present.

Friday 15th June was Journée nationale de l’archéologie. At CIAP, Didier Rigal from Inrap presented findings from the excavations carried out at Saint Maurice site of the former sucrerie run by the Administration Pénitentiaire as part of its activities. The presentation provided some fascinating insights into the complex stakes around bagne heritage in and around Saint Laurent du Maroni. The site, located on the outskirts of Saint Laurent du Maroni, was first discovered in 2016 by Arnauld Heuret. What was most surprising, perhaps, was how intact one of the former buildings, the caserne des surveillants [guards quarters] was. Despite how widespread the A.P.’s operation was across French Guiana, today there are very few sites where the ruins of the bagne evoke the original architectural structures. Despite time pressures, the site had been earmarked for the construction of a new centre commercial, Inrap were able to conduct a series of excavations as well as using historical and contemporary photographs and maps to produce a 3D rendering of the caserne. Due to the fragile and often close-knit structures of former sites belonging to the bagne as well as the proliferation of secondary forest, the excavations of a former site associated with the bagne in French Guiana were unique in their activity and scope.

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Journée nationale de l’archéologie. Photo by Claire Reddleman

Although the site is on the edge of a housing estate and next to the commercial distillerie, Rhums Saint Maurice, currently the only rum distillery in French Guiana, it is nevertheless difficult to spot without knowing what to look for. In summer 2017, I visited the site shortly after some of the archaeological work had been completed. The site was already covered in a pervasive grass and the caserne couldn’t be seen from the road. Consequently, public interest has been limited despite the potential to incorporate the vestiges into the project for the shopping centre. One suggestion I’ve heard was that it could have formed the basis for a museum of rum and tafia. The establishment of distilleries was one of the various ways the A.P. attempted to make the bagne pay for itself as well as to provide work for the libérés, convicts who had completed their sentences but who were obliged to remain in French Guiana as part of the doublage system. According to Rigal, the distillerie and the concessions (small plots of land) around the site had limited success.

The shopping centre is now under construction and the developers decided not to keep the vestiges as part of the site. From a heritage perspective this seems to be something of a tragedy. But this poses the question: do all historic buildings and sites possess intrinsic value as heritage? Given the failure of the A.P. to produce a sustainable economy which did not revolve around the maintenance of bagnards and administrators, the erasure of one site of such failed industry and development might seem more appropriate, especially for those currently living in and around Saint Maurice in need of the facilities proposed by the centre commercial development. SF

Site visit #5. 54 rue Madame Payé

Cayenne, 13 June 2018

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View from upstairs of 54 rue Madame Payé

54 rue Madame Payé in the centre of Cayenne, is an annex to the Musée des Cultures Guyanaises at No 78. No 54 has been restored using traditional Creole building techniques and local materials. What is most significant is that the last owner of the original house was Herménégilde Tell. Tell’s personal biography is closely woven into the story of the Penal Administration and its closure but he is also a key figure in the wider political history of French Guiana. Although most, if not all, traces of the bagne have long vanished from Cayenne which only continues to function as metonym for the penal colony in Metropolitan France, the bagne functions as a shadowy presence felt as much through its absence as tangible heritage and also as a thread running through personal and local histories such as that of Herménégilde Tell.

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Born in 1868, Herménégilde Philippe Hippolyte Athénodore Tell was the son of a former slave (his father was just ten years old when slavery was abolished in 1848 and already working on a plantation in Cayenne) and went on to become the Director of the A.P. at Saint Laurent du Maroni. Tell’s position as Director of the A.P. lies at the nexus of the complex racial pathologies of France’s colonial project. On the one hand, Tell represents the opportunities for the local population presented by the arrival of the penal colony which began operation in French Guiana a few years after the abolition of slavery. His father was also employed by the A.P. as a tonnelier [cooper]. Tell began work as a guard at the age of 17 and rose through the ranks to the level of Director in 1919. His career trajectory thus runs counter to a more widely known narrative which focuses on the employment of military personnel from France and its other colonies to work on a temporary basis in the bagne before being assigned elsewhere. Yet, recent discourse around the bagne and its legacy point to Tell’s unusual position as someone who successfully rose through the ranks as one of the keys to understanding the decarceration process. Ironically, it was the image of the son of a slave overseeing the punishment of a predominantly white convict population, as reported by Albert Londres, that is sometimes proposed as precipitating the public outcry about the bagne and the call, from mainland France, for its closure. Where the public either ignored or denied its existence previously or harboured a fascination for its myths, exoticism and cruelty, Londres’ reports brought a previously blurred fantasy into sharp relief not least with his critique of Tell’s inept management of the A.P. This critique was posited alongside the devastating accounts of the liberated convicts forced to do ‘doublage’ in the colony – the image of abject white poverty juxtaposed against the upward social and political mobility of the Creole population.

An awareness of Tell’s position in all this is useful in understanding the racist underpinnings that contributed towards the closure of the bagne. It also acts as a reminder of the complexity of decarceration and the complex, local and global stakes of such processes. At the same time, this discourse, more prominent in French Guiana perhaps, should also be subject to scrutiny.

When I visited 54 rue Madame Payé last year, the story of Tell’s rise and fall in the A.P. featured on panels in the downstairs of the house, cited Albert Londres’ Au Bagne suggesting that the initial reporting emphasized Tell’s racial identity in a brief clause that was later removed in subsequent republications.

 

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Exhibition on Herménégilde Tell, 54 rue Madame Payé, July 2017

‘Saint Laurent-du-Maroni…c’est la capitale du crime. Le roi règne et gouverne, c’est M. Herménégilde Tell, un nègre…’ (Albert Londres, Au Bagne, 1923)

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Detail from 23 August 1923 edition of Le Petit Parisien. Collection: Archives Nationales d’Outre Mer.

A few months later I was looking for the quotation in the book-version of Londres’ reports and found that the clause was still there. It hadn’t been edited out later or perhaps has been returned in later editions. Consequently, I went back to the original reports I had documented on a visit to ANOM in 2015. As it turned out, the clause was missing from the original reports in Le Petit Parisien and had been reinserted in later editions, no doubt based on Londres’ original manuscript.

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Albert Londres’ account of Saint Laurent du Maroni in Le Petit Parisien. Collection Archives Nationales d’Outre Mer

‘Saint Laurent-du-Maroni est le royaume de l’administration pénitentiaire. C’est une royauté absolu, sans Sénat, sans Chambre, sans même un petit bout de conseil municipal. C’est la capitale du crime.
         Le roi règne et gouverne, c’est M. Herménégilde Tell.’

What this suggests is that despite Londres’ explicit slur, this was actually censored or edited out by the editors at Le Petit Parisien in its initial publication. Why? The museum panel that referred inaccurately to a later censorship suggested that:

‘Ce dernier terme « un nègre », n’apparaît plus dans les éditions suivantes, probablement pour sa connotation raciste ou trop évocatrice de l’esclavage… Mais c’est effectivement le fils d’un ancien esclave qui est devenu directeur de l’administration pénitentiaire, après en avoir gravi les échelons.’

Cutting the reference did not perhaps remove all implication of Tell’s race and background but instead allowed these to operate on public imagination without being more forcibly and crudely articulated. Moreover, it is interesting to note that this minor error has now disappeared from the museum’s presentation of tell. This is not so much a case of the error having been corrected at 54 rue Madame Payé but the panels have been changed since my last visit. In general the text on the panels has been reduced, summarized perhaps to make room for the new exhibition on postcards upstairs. The relationship between Londres and Tell is still highlighted complete with moody photo of Londres. Here, however, Londres’ exact reference to Tell that was previously cited has been omitted. Instead he is simply described as having ‘skewered’ [épinglé] Tell.

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A more recent version of the encounter between Tell and Londres on display at 54 rue Madame Payé, June 2018.

‘La fin de ce parcours est ternie, dans le sillage de l’enquête d’Albert LONDRES au bagne. Sa personne [Tell] et sa fonction sont directement épinglées par le reporter. Le Gouverneur CHANEL, arrive en Guyane le 17 novembre 1923, met en doute son intégrité et demande sans relâche sa mise à la retraite, estimant que « son maintien à la tête de l’AP serait un obstacle certain à l’œuvre de réforme entreprise ».’

Both the earlier panels and the new version describe Tell as receiving commendation for his work but having come under varying degrees of criticism for his personality throughout his career in the A.P. While I’ve heard people describe the devastating effect Londres’ personal campaign against Tell had on him (he died 6 years later in 1931), there is a need to be wary of identifying him as scapegoat for the failure of the bagne. No doubt his high profile in French Guiana’s political circles working with Jean Galmot (taking over as Secretary General of the Parti de la Liberté following Galmot’s untimely demise) as well as the marriage of his daughter, Eugénie to Félix Eboué in 1922 serve to draw further attention to his chequered career as part of the bagne administration.

sketches 2.

Musée Franconie, Cayenne, 7 June 2018

For this plan of the section of the museum dedicated to objects related to the bagne, I used a ruler. I find lined paper helps provide a grid but is perhaps distracting to look at it. There was a small double seat in the corner of the museum where I sat to make the sketch. It didn’t take very long but sitting there facing the artworks by Francis Lagrange I wondered about how many hours he must have sat in the Cathedral museum in Rouen preparing the details for his forgery.

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Site visit #2. Musée Alexandre Franconie

7 June 2018 – Cayenne, French Guiana

Located across from the Bar des Palmistes, next to the town hall, the Musée Alexandre Franconie and its adjoining library is something of a local institution in Cayenne. It is often referred to as the “musée loca” and anyone growing up in Cayenne is likely at some point to have been taken on a school trip there.

Document Name downstairs view

As the museum’s brochure tells us, Gustave Franconie and his family sold the building and donated his father Alexandre’s library to the French government in 1885. The museum was inaugurated in 1901. The ground floor of the museum is predominantly taken up with Guyane’s natural history and features and extensive selection of wildlife taxidermy. There is also reference to prominent local figures including Jean Galmot and Justin Catayée. At the back of the museum is an air-conditioned annex dedicated to the museum’s insect collection. The staff encourage you to visit this part of the museum and I think this is mainly so they can come and sit in the air-conditioned space for a while.

The first floor focuses on the cultural history of the department including that of the indigenous Amerindian population, the abolition of slavery and, the operation of the penal colony [bagne]. The section on the bagne is a small self-contained section divided off by wood paneling. There are a few glass cabinets containing objects that are well-known as part of the iconography of the penal colony including bricks marked A.P., handcrafted miniature guillotines (see also Clare Anderson’s post on this as part of the Convict Voyages project) and engraved coconuts. Most bizarre and disturbing, perhaps, is the giant plaster of Paris foot produced from a mould of a convict’s foot that had swollen beyond recognition due to the excessive use of leg irons. In the centre of the space are two custom-made display cabinet featuring dioramas of the Iles du Salut and the camp at Saint Jean du Maroni. I list these things not with the intention of providing an exhaustive account of the museum’s collection on the bagne but, rather, in an attempt to evoke the limited and arbitrary nature of its collection. Standing by an open window which looks out onto Avenue de Charles de Gaulle, one of the main streets in Cayenne, is a mannequin dressed in the stripy pyjamas and straw hat of the bagnard. The brim of the hat and the bright sunlight from outside maintain the mannequin’s face in the shadows. Similar to the mannequins that populated the prison museum at Abashiri, the mannequin presence is affirmed by his silence.

Document Name Mannequin

In contrast to the complying silence of the mannequin-bagnard are the brightly coloured paintings produced by counterfeiter turned convict, Francis Lagrange, which adorn the wood panelling opposite. The paintings depict numerous scenes from Lagrange’s time on the Iles du Salut in Saint Laurent du Maroni and Cayenne. Although originally arrested for producing counterfeit currency, Lagrange almost got away with replacing the triptych located in the museum at Rouen Cathedral with a forgery. It is not without a certain irony therefore that his images in the Musée Franconie are not originals but actually reproductions. Although Lagrange produced them himself, the original series was done for a restaurant owner who then sold them to an American. Lagrange did another set which is the one now displayed in the Musée Franconie. The original series is now owned by the University of Saint Louis in Missouri.

Document Name Paintings view

Leafing through the museum’s visitor’s book, most people who visit the museum seem to enjoy it for what it is, a museum of ‘curiosities’, a living example of what museums once were. Only a few visitors complained about the poor labelling of the exhibits, peeling paintwork or requested the introduction of audio guides. There is no prescription as to what you look at or in what order. The open windows upstairs allow you to look out into the town, affirming the museum’s role as part of Cayenne and its community, not a sealed off vacuum. Although people have told me there are factual inaccuracies in some of the displays, there is also no overbearing narrative telling me what to think. At a moment where contemporary museums are taken up with intangible heritage, audience participation and storytelling, the Musée Franconie reminds us of the power of objects and their display.

Text SF, Photos CR

 

Sketches 1.

Fort Balaguier

 

A significant part of the project involves consideration of the visual representation and framing of penal heritage in French Guiana and New Caledonia. While we are relying on the use of photography to document the presentation of different sites and types of sites, there is the danger that photographs reproduce an aesthetics of display rather than providing an alternative critical frame.

Photographs intended to document a site objectively (despite any claim to objectivity being void) risk becoming sterile on later examination. A single image might also become too important or an attempt at producing an exhaustive set of images can end up producing an overwhelming and unmanageable plethora of images.

To off-set some of these challenges, I have started to incorporate sketches alongside my fieldnotes. The ability to draw well or at all does not seem a prerequisite amongst anthropologists which gives me a certain sense of encouragement. Most of my sketches are little more than line drawings, cartoons or doodles sometimes with some colour added depending on what is in my pencil case. Although the pen like the camera is a prosthetic device, there are nevertheless some fairly key and obvious reasons why sketching can be a useful embodied experience alongside photography.

  1. There is a tendency to focus on the capturing of objects and their labels in a museum or gallery. If it is unlikely I will get the chance to visit again, this becomes further intensified and I feel under enormous pressure to capture everything in as systematic way as possible. Although this has often proved self-defeating and physically exhausting, experience has also taught me that the things that turn out to be of greatest interest are not necessarily the ones I expected. To take some time out from this often tedious practice of capturing to draw a sketch can be quite useful and provide a necessary physical rest and chance to start reflecting.
  2. In small prison museums and exhibitions, I quite enjoy sketching out a plan of the space. Photographs don’t always do a great job of expressing layouts. A sketch can act as an aide-mémoire at the same time as obliging me to note carefully where everything is. Although written notes are probably most helpful in describing how narratives are presented across a sites, a layout sketch can also emphasize important juxtapositions between objects and other displays. So far I’ve tended to draw layout free hand with limited success. Most recently, these include a plan of the layout of the permanent exhibition on the bagnes at Fort Balaguier.
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The permanent exhibition on the bagne located in the former chapel at Fort Balaguier
  1. I am also keen to learn what these might flag up retrospectively about my own selection and framing of different carceral spaces and heritage as well as my labeling techniques and how these might evolve throughout the project. SF.