Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG)

Prisoners, Punishment and Torture

This project, a collaboration between RCMG, Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) and Tom Duncan of Duncan McCauley GmbH & Co, sought to address a particular set of challenges facing the Tower of London. How might the Tower of London take forward their interpretation of stories of imprisonment, punishment and torture in ways that take account of and reconcile visitor's expectations, motivations and interests and HRP's commitment to interpretive practice underpinned by ethical values and the standards of museological and curatorial practice? Furthermore, how might this be progressed through an approach that engages with, and embodies, leading edge thinking and practice in the field of interpretive design to offer visitors emotionally engaging experiences of the highest quality?


Historic Royal Palaces is an independent charity which manages five royal palaces, including the Tower of London. Still a working building today, the interpretive 'puzzle' at the heart of this project emerged from a number of issues experienced at the Tower as a visitor site:

  • Evaluation suggests that visitors are strongly motivated by a desire to encounter stories of imprisonment, punishment and torture but many appear to leave disappointed by aspects of their visit to the Tower, expressing a wish for more (and perhaps more gory?) material?
  • HRP are interested in exploring ways to enhance visitor satisfaction that are not in conflict with the organisation's commitment to ethical values, curatorial standards and the needs, wishes and interests of diverse stakeholders.

The project

RCMG was commissioned by HRP to resolve this 'puzzle'. Underpinning RCMG's proposal was the need to understand the site-specific puzzle in relation to broader international (scholarly and professional) debates in the field, and to explore emerging innovative practice in the field of interpretive design as holding the potential to develop an approach that could offer visitors to the Tower an emotionally engaging, authentic and rich experience at the same time as reconciling some of the apparent tensions inherent in the project.

RCMG, HRP and Duncan McCauley worked in collaboration to resolve the 'intepretive puzzle' at the heart of this project, bringing the necessary skills, expertise and experience to the research team. The following activities were carried out as part of the project:

  • A review of the literature in three working papers that identified professional and scholarly debates relevant to the project and helped to distil a series of ideas, questions and concerns that framed and informed the interpretive approach at the Tower.
    • The ethical treatment of ‘challenging’ or ‘dark’ histories in historic sites and museums
    • Emotional engagement and learning: how can museums and historic sites offer powerful, emotionally engaging experiences?
    • Embodied narrative experience
  • A small scale, qualitative study of current visitors to the Tower to explore in greater detail their motivations for visiting the Tower, expectations and experiences of the site, and attitudes towards the theme of Prisoners, Punishment and Torture.
  • A workshop with the research team bringing together the findings from the working papers and visitor study with the principles of interpretive design to explore and analyse the implications for the Tower.
  • A presentation and workshop with the research team and HRP staff to test the emerging findings and discuss how the findings might be used to inform future practice at the Tower.

Key findings

The key finding from the project was the development of an overarching framework or set of principles for taking forward the interpretation of Prisoners, Punishment and Torture at the Tower. This included:

  • The importance of authenticity - real people, real places.
  • Ensuring accessibility - not just physical accessibility but emotional and intellectual.
  • Providing visitors with multiple entry points into the theme - giving visitors a choice.
  • The importance of context - not dwelling on moments of pain or torture but showing the complexity of people's lives and motivation.
  • Having a clear vision, narrative or structure to the theme - what is the purpose? For example, gives and insight into the human experience.
  • Torture is serious and violent.

Prisoners, Punishment and Torture: Developing new approaches to interpretation at the Tower of London (2014) (PDF, 5350kb). This report describes and illustrates the research and new frameworks for interpretation at the Tower of London.


The project coincided with a time of experimentation for HRP and their interpretation of the Tower of London, including this short film by Paul Duffield, Emma Viecelli and Kate Brown about the disappearance of 'The Princes in the Tower' during the reign of their uncle King Richard III 1483-1485.

Back to top