Horsens Museum and Kvorning Design & Communication: Horsens Prison Museum

Anne Bjerrekaer

Director, Horsens Museum

Horsens Museum

Horsens Museum Sundvej 1a DK-8700 Horsens Denmark

Horsens, Denmark
Museums + Heritage International Award 2016


Recreating Life Behind Bars

Horsens –once an alleged city of crime

Horsens State Prison was builtin 1853 as the first modern prison in Denmark riding the wave of a new approach toand perceptionof punishment which had emerged in the United States during the 1820s and from there spread to Europe. This modern prison system was based on incarceration as part of punishment, and for that purpose large, imposingbuildings were erected throughout the greater part of the Western world in the second part of the 19th century. Horsens State Prison was in use for 153 years before closing down in 2006.

At the time it was built, the prison was a pride and joy for the city, representing all the best ideas of a modern society, but as time went by, it rather stigmatised the city, which was increasingly (but unjustly) perceived as a criminal and poor city – despite having exactly the same crimerate as other cities of similar size. For a long time the citizens of Horsens were all but proud of their city. However, a new spirit surfaced in the 1990’s, and the city was determined to make changes. So, when the prison was to shut down in 2006, a group of people started working along with Horsens Museum on the idea of transforming the former much hated monument of Horsens into the city’s new cultural landmark – and changing the bad reputation.

The Project

The idea was to transform the prison into a social meeting point, a concert venue with a capacity of up to 40,000 guests, and providing facilities for festivals, business events, hostel services, a tourist office, small creative companies, cafées – and most importantly, seen from a museum director's point of view: a great prison museum. The only one of its kind in Denmark. With the offset in a largely unexplored part of our cultural heritage, not only in Denmark, but in Europe as a whole, visions were focusedon creatingone of the world's best prison museums with focus on authenticity, personal storytelling and current debate.Five years ago we inaugurated the museum in the old prison's main building, comprising 4,000 sq.m. of authentic prison halls, corridors, bathrooms, medical wards, cells, kitchens and prison church. Some 10,000 unique exhibits are on display, mostof them showcased in original prison cupboards and cabinets. The project was financed with the help of the Municipality of Horsens, which acquired the prison from the Danish State, and we furthermore benefited from funding fromtwo major funds in Denmark totalling around 4.5 million euro earmarked for exhibitions. Today,though only 5 years old, the museum has already experienced several phases of additional refurbishment.

The Mission

Our aim was to present history in a context, but also to give a voice to former prisoners, relatives and staff members. Furthermore, we were determined to create a platform, where visitors could participate in the current social debate – both during their visit tothe museum and after,e.g. through social media. The focal point should be authenticity: Compelling visitor experiences were toinvoke moods and feelings of prison life. Dramaturgical, audio-visual, technological, and physical means of expression should be employed in order to convey the narrative and the moods of the prison most authentically and convincingly, making sure, however, not to overdramatize interpretation.Interpretations should always enhance a unique and authentic prison atmosphere, and technical equipment alien to the prison should be avoided if possible. It has been an extensive process and has required intense, combined efforts of the museum and the designers Kvorning Design and Communication.

A strict dogma of authenticity

In the museum, the prison and real-life story of former prisoners/guards come to life through dramatic historic narratives, quotes, animations, lighting, sounds and analogue means. A carefully thought-out scenography and a musicological concept based on a strict dogma of authenticity in all aspects of the storytelling, guides the visitor through the interior of the former prison accompanied by authentic sounds and shadow plays with real prisoners and prison guards, personal stories told involvingartefacts and different types of analogue and digital means. Authentic phones, computer screens and televisions from the old prison are now part of the museum interiors. Some touchscreens embedded in original cell tables make it possible to read letters and notebooks, and others allow visitors to create their own art exhibition ‘prison style’. Children of prisoners have contributed to an exhibition where the visitors can listen tothree children talking about life with a father in prison, and in seven debate rooms current public debates are highlighted, offering a combination of historical knowledge, expert opinions, statistics, recentnewspaper clippings, as well as the possibility to voice your own opinion in different polls. Around 1,000 votes are registered on a monthly basis. Guides and museum staffwho also share analogue visitor contributions on the museum's social media channels moderate the high level of interactive participation from visitors.


Social Media

Horsens Prison Museum has distinctive social media profiles on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and You Tube. On the internet, and are platforms for knowledge and debate where access is given to text, photos and artefacts from the museum as well as extensive bonusmaterial such as material for primary and secondary schools, film, interviews and virtual tours in both the old and the new prison.

Visiting program

A cornerstone in the museological concept is the personal interactionbetween the guideand the visitor. We believe that personal interaction creates a truly dynamic museum. The museum offers a series of tours guided by either expert guides or authentic guides. This programme is extremely popular with a steady increase in the number of guided tours which is expected to reachas high as 1,500 guided tours in 2017.
Part of the guided tours programme are targeted educational purposes, and special attention is given to special needs children and young adults.

Horsens – a city of culture

Until today, 5 years after opening to the public, we have welcomed more than 800.000 guests to festivals, concerts, conferencesand the museum. The museum alone hashad almost 300,000 visitors. In the year 2000, only 2 percent of the Danes associated the city of Horsens with culture. Today,this figure is an astonishing 50 percent– and many now associate the 'prisonbrand' with something positive.
FAENGSLET Prison Museum won the Museum and Heritage International Award in 2016. The comments from the jury read: “Immersive and a highly personal, emotional experience with sensitive interpretation and a delicate use of different media, this winning project really showed the human story and not just one of the buildings it occupies.”

We had a dream. It might come true.


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