20th July – 22nd September 2019
‘Felons’ by artist Matt Stokes is a computer generated animation commissioned by Museums Northumberland for Hexham Old Gaol. It relays three real accounts of contemporary prisoners’ experiences, told by birds of prey.
Birds of prey are also known as raptors, which comes from the Latin verb rapere, meaning to seize or take by force. These birds were, and still are, referred to metaphorically in relation to crime. Many words and phrases used in falconry have crept into everyday vocabulary and conjure thoughts of misdemeanours and life in a medieval gaol or modern prison: to ‘hoodwink’ someone, to ‘cadge’ for food, or even to be ‘fed-up’.
In Britain, falconry is closely linked to the land due to its historical attachment with the aristocracy. During the middle ages, customs evolved whereby birds of prey were ranked in accordance with their owners’ social hierarchy. However, as lands were enclosed during the 18th and 19th century, gamekeepers increasingly persecuted raptors in an attempt to protect stock used for sport hunting. For the poor, the need to hunt ‘for the pot’ might have been considered a necessity rather than a luxury, but man-traps and gin-traps became common tools to ensnare poachers and birds of prey. Courts of the period frequently dealt with accusations of poaching, and over time many species of raptors were put at risk.
Today, not only are birds of prey protected by law, but they are also used within the prison service as part of rehabilitation programmes.
Stokes’ film, presented here in the oldest purpose built gaol in England, invites the audience to consider the poignancy of both the prisoners’ and birds’ experiences, alongside the historic and on-going interplay between rich and poor, power and persecution, and systems of crime and punishment.
Matt Stokes would like to thank Novus staff at HMP Northumberland and HMP Low Newton for their support, the prisoner residents who shared their stories, staff at Changing Lives for advice, and Ray and Cath at Kielder Water Birds of Prey Centre for their generosity and assistance filming their beautiful raptors.
Animated by Alan Warburton.
Produced by Abigail Addison at Animate Projects.
Featuring the voices of actors Dean Bone, Dylan Barnes and Viktoria Kay.
You can find out more about historic prisoner experiences at Hexham Old Gaol in the Museum’s permanent exhibitions and in our daily ‘Prisoners Past’ tour at 2pm.
Younger visitors can connect to the themes of prison and prisoner experiences in ‘Jailbirds’, a facilitated art activity by the artist Bethan Maddocks. This art activity runs daily from 11am-12.30pm during weekends and the Northumberland School summer holidays in the Charlton Room.
Explore our other Northumberland museums this summer to experience more work by Matt Stokes:
Beyond the Field: Encounter a lost rural soundscape inspired by the 18th century borderland at Berwick Museum and Art Gallery.
A Traveller And A Shepherd: Explore the lighter side of Northumberland’s unique musical instruments, the Northumberland Pipes, at Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum.
Soundmirror: Discover the incredible story of the orchid grown and named for local footballing legend Jackie Milburn at Woodhorn Museum.