Sunday 30 June 2019

#HCNet Conference Report 2

Who Speaks? Digital Technology and Crime Histories by Katy Roscoe

While attending the Historical Criminology Conference in Plymouth last month, I was struck by the changing role of digital technologies in researching and communicating crime history.

Kate West (Oxford Brookes) discussed our increased reliance on digital texts which diverts our attention from the visuality of books. West’s example of a digitisation with an obscured frontispiece, reminded me of how keyword searching misses the front-page of online 19th-century newspapers. Both frontispieces and frontpages offer cultural, social and material context to individuals’ crime histories.
Digital technology was also a theme of Rhiannon Pickin (Leeds Beckett) and Dan Johnson’s (York) paper on representations of women offenders in prison museums. Some museums were drawn to technology at the expense of nuanced historical narratives. For example, a projection of an executed woman, portrayed by an actor with a noose around her neck, talking about finding fame as a condemned criminal. On the other hand, they pointed to the free availability of digital primary sources as a possible solution for under-resourced museums seeking to reconfigure these narratives.

Kate Lister’s (Leeds Trinity) keynote offered insights into social media as a platform for engagement and activism. Lister’s twitter account @WhoresOfYore put her into contact with the sex workers, who challenged her representation of ‘their’ histories.  Social media offers an alternative, corrective platform to ‘old’ media (e.g. newspapers, TV, popular books) that often silence and stigmatise sex workers. In my view, there is a particular imperative for crime historians to use technology as a tool of engagement, since podcasts and streaming services are at the heart of a growing audience for ‘true crime’. As crime historians we can offer critical, contextualised narratives as a corrective to sensationalised offerings that delve into the psychology of perpetrators, at the expense of women and children as victims.

Katy Roscoe is an ESRC postdoctoral fellow at the University of Liverpool, with her project “Criminals incapable of reform?" Re-assessing the population of Cockatoo Island Prison (Sydney), 1839-69’. Katy works on crime & punishment in the British Empire (Australia, Bermuda and Gibraltar), on topics including Indigeneity/race, labour, and maritime geographies.

Greyscale aerial photograph of a heavily industrialised island in the middle of a grey sea, a city visible on land in the distance.
Hurley, Frank. (1951). Cockatoo Docks[Sydney] National Library of Australia:

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