Ella Sharp Museum and Cell Block 7: a Most Unusual Combination
A Curious Blend of Wholesome and Sinister
The Ella Sharp Museum of Art and History in Jackson, Michigan is embedded in Ella Sharp Park, comprising over five hundred acres of education and recreation in one setting. This museum is also the operator of Cell Block 7, a disused portion of the much larger Jackson State Prison, and is run as a museum with the goal of public education about life as lived by incarcerated inmates in America today. This somewhat strange combination must surely rank as one of the more unique efforts in museology in recent times. This article seeks to explain how this unusual initiative came about.
Ella Sharp Museum and Park
Ella Sharp was a civic leader in the Jackson area who willed her home and more than five hundred acres to the City of Jackson in 1912. The original home was the site of her legacy and opened to the public in 1965. The park beyond is the setting for nature trails, the modern Ella Sharp Museum of Art and History, and golf courses, pavilions and flower gardens. An annual hot air balloon jubilee is also featured every July. The park also contains the Peter Hurst Planetarium. Close to the museum, several sculpture groups add to the artistic mood. Inside, a combination of natural history and art is found. Vintage autos, recalling Jackson's days as a vehicle-maker, are located in a separate exhibit. A large clock making area, featuring banjo wall clocks as well as clocks that sit on tables and mantelpieces, gives a nostalgic feel to the museum. The art section has featured drawings of familiar American cultural icons such as Alfred Hitchcock and Andy Warhol! The natural history exhibit features ducks and moose, as well as other fauna. There is also a spacious dining area for those who like to balance museum going with a rest break. In all, this complex features a thoroughly grand combination of education and recreation, and much museum outing "bang for the buck."
Cell Block 7
This is a new venture since it opened in 2014. A joint initiative between the Ella Sharp Museum and the Michigan Department of Corrections, it seeks to capture the flavor of life inside a major state prison, as lived by the inmates on a daily basis. Actually, the concept is not all that new, as evidenced by the infamous Alcatraz prison on "The Rock" in San Francisco Bay, now closed and a major tourist destination in that city. Like Alcatraz, Jackson can boast of an impressive roster of bad guys among its alumni, both living and deceased. Distinguished "guests" have included members of Detroit's notorious Purple Gang of the 1920's and 1930's, assisted suicide advocate Dr.Jack Kevorkian and former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Some prison advocates of reform, like Beccaria, have called for more humane surroundings for inmates through the years. Jackson seems to typify the American model of stout security, reinforced with heavy perimeter devices such as razor wire to discourage escapees. In this, it reflects the standard prison model stretching from Sing Sing to San Quentin. The Cell Block 7 Museum therefore does not try to masquerade the grim facts of life in such an institution. Having said that, however, it is a unique contribution to American museology today. For a different kind of museum visit and insight into a world few of us will ever see, a visit here is recommended.
What these two museums can teach
The collaboration of the two agencies show how two somewhat disparate entities can come together and create a most interesting museum experience for all. Just a short time ago, who would have thought it possible? It may inspire other joint ventures around the country, but in any case it combines to offer a museum outing for families or serious scholars that is hard to match.