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Into the light

Penitentiary artifacts make their way from the prison to the public

By Janet Harron

The first display of prison artifacts in the province’s history is now open to the public at Memorial University.

Housed in the Great Hall of Queen’s College on the St. John’s campus, Time on Their Hands is the result of a partnership between Dr. Madeleine Mant, Banting post-doctoral fellow and adjunct professor in the Department of Archaeology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, and David Harvey, a retired captain of Her Majesty’s Penitentiary (HMP).

The objects in the exhibit reflect more than 150 years and the stories of thousands of people — both penitentiary staff and inmates. The key theme is a universal one: marking, keeping and passing time.

Time on Their Hands was funded by the Public Engagement Accelerator Fund.

“Public engagement is about collision spaces,” said Dr. Mant.

“It’s about creating a space for human engagement, breaking down institutional silos and encouraging interdisciplinary thinking by bringing together people from varied backgrounds with varied interests.”

1/ Keys

Conventional prison keys versus keys crafted from ordinary objects.

Photo: Bryn Tapper

2/ Artifacts

A miscellany of artifacts from Her Majesty’s Penitentiary.

Photo: Bryn Tapper

3/ Full house

The capacity crowd included members of the Memorial community and current and retired HMP staff.

Photo: Bryn Tapper

4/ From the prison to the public

More artifacts on display.

Photo: Bryn Tapper

5/ Prison currency

Vintage cigarette packages.

Photo: Bryn Tapper

6/ Current staff

Members of today's HMP staff attended the exhibit's opening.

Photo: Bryn Tapper

19th-century living conditions

Mr. Harvey began to collect old artifacts and documents in various locations in HMP about 10 years ago. He says he created “one small but dandy-looking museum” in the basement of the prison’s administrative building.

The drawback was that the only people who could view the display were HMP staff members or individuals who contacted Mr. Harvey directly to arrange a private viewing.

Dr. Mant’s research interests include health and living conditions of individuals in institutions such as hospitals and prisons during the 19th century. In October 2017 Dr. Mant and her supervisor, Dr. Meghan Burchell, took a tour of Mr. Harvey’s museum.

“They were like two schoolgirls in a candy shop,” Mr. Harvey said.

Around the same time, the Provincial Archives at The Rooms contacted Mr. Harvey to say they could assist with moving his collection of documents and ledgers for the purpose of being properly cleaned, restored and digitized.

Over the past year, the artifacts made their way from the prison to the public.

Dr. Mant and Mr. Harvey both acknowledge the help they received from archaeology students Ian Predham and Chelsee Arbour and the curatorial guidance from conservationists and artists Wade Greeley, Miki Lee and Will Gill in order to have the artifacts professionally mounted and displayed in the Great Hall at Queen’s College.

Time on Their Hands is open to the public from 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday-Friday.


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