Travel: England - Hanging's too good for 'em

Nottingham's Galleries of Justice offer flogging, branding, the pillory and the stocks. Louise Duffield braved the dungeons
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The Independent Online
Hanging, transportation, solitary confinement, branding with a hot iron - you see it all at the Galleries of Justice in Nottingham. The former Shire Hall and county gaol in the city's Lace Market area has been turned into a museum dedicated to crime, punishment and law.

The current Condemned! exhibition takes visitors through the days when petty theft could mean years in a filthy prison, and when arson and rioting could lead to hanging. Indeed, the graphic reconstruction of the dubious trial of George Beck for his part in the 1831 Reform Bill riots in the splendid original criminal court room shows how unjust justice can be.

From there, visitors - each bearing a different prisoner number - are sent down to the cold cells to be confronted by gaolers and "punished" for their crimes. They experience the hell holes that were prisons, what it was like to be transported to Australia, and such punishments as the stocks and the pillory. The small exercise yard, still bearing the engravings of condemned criminals, contains a full-size working gallows.

The Galleries bring ideas about punishment right up to date with a thought- provoking and hard-hitting exhibition on hanging - which visitors can avoid if they choose - and suggestions about dealing with criminals in the future. Over the next 17 months the Galleries of Justice will continue to expand, adding new police galleries based in the original 1905 police station, revamped and extended crime and punishment galleries, and discovery galleries centring on civil law. The eventual aim is for it to become the National Museum of Law.

The visitors

Gill Davis, a nursery teacher from Derby, went to the Galleries of Justice with her daughter Anna, 14, and son Tom, 11.

Gill: There was a lot more there than I thought. I didn't realise we would be going down into the cells beneath. I liked the way we were given our own prisoner numbers and we became part of the system, so that the law process happened to us. It made it personal. The bits where there was sound and video were good in intermittently taking you away from all the reading. You need those bits to break it up. There is a lot of information to read - so children coming here need quite a high level of literacy. Some of the exhibitions would be quite frightening for very young children.

The atmosphere was very good in the court room and cells. The staff who were dressed as gaolers and court officials were highly convincing. I think the Galleries of Justice provide a good balance between guides and areas where you wander at your own speed. There's plenty to see and do, and I would definitely come back again. You can be in there for quite a while, but when the extra bit opens it will be a full day.

Anna: I thought it was very realistic. The bit about hanging really sticks in your mind. It might be a bit scary for small children but you are given the choice of whether you want to walk that way or not. The guard was very intimidating and makes you feel as if you're a prisoner. I felt I learnt quite a lot about some of the punishments that were given over history, and also that sometimes people's punishments did not fit the crime, but they were just made an example of.

Tom: It was very interesting and realistic in the way they did the court scenes. It was strict. I knew that some of the punishments were harsh, but some of them were a bit strong. When you stole a loaf of bread you got seven years in prison. Sometimes the deportation couldn't really be called punishment, because you got land. People would commit crime just to get deported, because it was a new start in a new country with no pollution and with warm weather.

The guard who had the scissors to cut our hair when we went to the cells was realistic. It was very cold down there. It might have been nice to have had some realistic smells as well.

The deal

The Galleries of Justice is at the Shire Hall, High Pavement, Lace Market, Nottingham (0115-952 0555).

Open: Tuesday to Sunday and Bank Holidays 10am-5pm. Closed 24-26 December. As a result of redevelopment the current Condemned! exhibition will close on 20 April for expansion. New police galleries open on 6 April, and crime and punishment galleries on 20 July.

Admission: Until 20 April, adults pounds 4.25, children aged 5-14 pounds 2.95, family ticket for two adults and two children pounds 11.95. For police galleries (from 6 April), adults pounds 3.95, children pounds 3.50, family ticket pounds 11.95. From 20 July, police galleries and crime and punishment galleries, adults pounds 7.95, children pounds 4.95, family ticket pounds 23.95. Season tickets, special events and group rates available.

Access: mobility-impaired visitors currently have access to only 60 per cent of the exhibition, but this rises to 90 per cent in July.

Toilets: clean. Baby-changing and facilities for disabled.

Catering: courtyard cafe and judges' pantry serving snacks, etc, available from 2 March.

Shop: gift shop opens 2 March.