The picturesque village of Littledean, Gloucestershire is an unlikely location for one of the most disturbing museums in the UK; Littledean Jail. The Jail is quite striking. The gardens are well tended to, and its physical structure is impeccably kept. It is quite a contrast to the quaint country cottages just a few metres away. Upon entering the jail, it is easy to confuse it with a bric-a-brac shop, with display cases littered with oodles of dusty items. However, once your eyes focus upon some of the contents, that opinion quickly changes.
The ‘exhibits’ here are basically collections of memorabilia taking up every available piece of space on the walls and ceilings of the jail. The main entrance hall has sections on stuffed Siamese animals, Nazi memorabilia and toys among others. To the back, a whole selection of outfits from KKK members is interspersed with Golliwogs and other racist ornaments. A hooded figure leading a black child by a noose is a particularly vulgar piece in the main entrance hall. With no explanation as to whether they are merely displaying, not advocating this behaviour, it is impossible to go along with any potential ‘joke’ behind this kind of spectacle.
However foul lots of the exhibits are, these items do exist, and weren’t created for the jail specifically. The newspaper collections of crime, corruption and debauchery aren’t incorrect. For example, the racist past of America is still resonating throughout their modern culture, and no-one disputes the evidence found during Operation Yewtree. Virtually every public figure’s darkest points are documented in collages of newspaper clippings. From Leona Lewis getting punched at a book signing, to Naomi Campbell punching…anyone, to Tony Blair hanging out with Gadaffi and the general shenanigans of The Kray twins. The levels of ‘celebrity’ shaming are broad, no one is spared from humiliation in the jail.
The least offensive section in the Jail is actually behind closed doors. The ‘adult room’ largely focuses on body shaming, with nipple slips and wardrobe malfunctions the most prevalent. In the era of #freethenipple there is nothing shocking about women having and showing breasts, so it falls short of their promise to offend or embarrass. In comparison, photos of people post-suicide, ISIS beheadings, and concentration camp images and clothing are viewable by anyone who enters each of their specific jail cells. These parts of the Museum are not for the weak-stomached. However, like a car crash, it hurts to look but you can’t turn away.
The owners show a lot of things off, and largely have similar items in similar areas of the jail, but there is no natural flow, no discussion as to why each section is there, or any of its historical significance. An existing knowledge is required to understand a lot of what is there. If any information is present at each area of the jail, the overwhelming number of other exhibits surrounding each other means no one topic takes up enough for it to be studied thoroughly.
Littledean Jail is fascinating, but is there to repulse and humiliate when it could educate us on the darkest parts of human history. Presumably, their intention is to never formalise their work in that manner, and the jail may just be here to disgust by any means possible. If everyone and everything is a potential target to add to their exhibit, then not one person can be offended by its contents.
Words by Matthew Whelband