A fresh approach to interpreting crime history at Bishop’s Stortford Museum – by Dorian Knight, Museum Assistant, Bishop Stortford Museum

Originally published on the Our Criminal Past website, 4/12/14

At the Bishop’s Stortford Museum, housed within the Rhodes Arts Complex, the current temporary exhibition ‘On The Beat: Stories From 1914-18’ (4th August 2014 – 19th January 2015) highlights local stories from World War I, as detailed in contemporary police accounts found  following the redevelopment of the town’s Victorian police station.  These records (in total 102 volumes and 13 assorted bundles) were received due to an extraordinary gift donated in the 1990s to Bishop’s Stortford Museum and Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, a collection of Hertfordshire Police Documents from the 1840s to 1919 and ranging from occurrence books and incidence logs to charge sheets and constable journals. Forming the backbone of the exhibition, these papers (following heavy conservation treatment due to severe water damage as well as mould and pest infections) provide a unique insight into policing at home during the conflict, as unfortunately documentation from the police in this era has been hard to come by. Interestingly yet tragically, the war inevitably meant that the police force were required to deal with a range of social problems never experienced previously.

As highlighted within the exhibition space, a policeman’s typical day at the time could involve reports of foreign spies by the railway station, the attempted suicide of a returned soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or a theft from the local orchard. These incidents also necessitated the police to adapt their working methods due to the distressing circumstances of the time; for example, many of those arrested argued that their issues were created by war time conditions, concerns the exhibition explores.

Particular challenges for the project included presenting the material effectively; the collection of documents although a treasure trove for historians of crime do not lend themselves well to public display and accessibility.  Additionally there were concerns of content; as the record’s stories were perceptibly out of living memory there was a curatorial desire to engage empathy amongst visitors, to illuminate the cataclysmic effect the war had both on individuals and all levels of society.  For these reasons it was decided to take a fresh approach to interpretation and enlist the services of students from Middlesex University’s Illustration Department in order to tell these accounts using both graphic novels and a digitized graphic narrative.

The graphic novel is a relatively new medium that has grown out of the comic book, a medium that has a controversial history yet is both creative and engaging and renowned as a vehicle frequently used for exploring social issues (see Schwarz 2007). As Versaci (2007, p.12) puts it; ‘the marginality of comics has allowed comic book creators to take advantage of others ’ (dis)regard for them in order to create representations that can be both surprising and subversive.

If one characteristic of good literature is that it challenges our ways of thinking, then comics’ cultural position is such that they are able to mount these challenges in unique ways.’ This idea is related to the concept of ‘multiple literacies’, a notion within educational theory that has become common parlance in recent years due to ‘the rapid growth in new communications technologies and a growing interest in how people themselves experience literacies’ (Schwarz 2010, p.73). Thus, literacy can no longer be understood a single, knowable quantity that is both narrow and standardized, but encompasses many different perspectives, including that of the graphic novel which allows a very visceral sense of the catastrophe that the war brought to a small English town, enabling communication of  the stories that lie within the police records.

Colour also makes a difference and is one of the key visual elements. The washed out sepia of the graphic novel and occasional bright monochrome panels convey respectively the utter exhaustion caused by the conflict as well as the emotionally charged and tumultuous atmosphere of the times. The small, intimate handwriting used suggests these stories engage the visitor’s empathy.

In the words of Nancy Slonims (2014), programme leader at Middlesex, ‘I think using mediums such as the graphic novel and animation to tackle the stories from Bishop’s Stortford allowed us to translate these accounts into something that felt incredibly fresh and easy to connect with.’ There were inevitable issues in developing the exhibition with curators liaising with illustration students. The need for detailed historical accuracy made the project challenging for the students, yet according to one member of the group, ‘the fact that although there were strict guidelines regarding accuracy means a necessity to be more creative.’  Additionally, curatorial practise and exhibition design dictates a precise methodology in developing a clear exhibition narrative which occasionally clashed with the creative process of artists.

Yet the finished exhibition looks sleek, modern and highly polished. Much has been written on the benefits of new social media technologies as tools for publicising research and engaging new people with crime history. However, as the curatorial approach to this exhibition indicates it is not just the obvious choices such as Facebook and Twitter that can achieve this; interpretive methods such as the use of graphic novel can be highly effective in disseminating research to a wider audience.

Bibliography

Schwarz, G. (2007). Media Literacy, Graphic Novels and Social Issues. In: Studies in Media and Information Literacy Education (volume 7, issue 4), pp. 1-11.

Schwarz, G. (2010). Graphic Novels, New Literacies, and Good Old Social Justice. In: ALAN Review (summer issue), pp. 71-75.

Versaci, R. (2007). This Book Contains Graphic Language: Comics as literature. New York: Continuum.

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