Senior Vice President, Director of Interpretation
State Penitentiary Historic Site, Philadelphia
Sean Kelley has run all public programming at Eastern State Penitentiary since 1995, when he was hired as the organization’s first full-time employee. He produced the site’s award-winning audio tour in 2002, now heard by more than a million visitors. During his tenure he has overseen the selection of, and curated, more than 70 site-specific artist installations.
Mr. Kelley is currently focused on developing programming to address the enormous growth in the US prison population since 1970, and the causes for racial disparities within that population. In 2014 he oversaw the development of a 16-foot, 3,500 pound bar graph on the penitentiary’s baseball diamond. The Big Graph illustrates the skyrocketing size of the U.S. prison population in the past 40 years, the racial breakdown of the prison population over time, and the comparison to other nations’ prison populations. Mr. Kelley then oversaw the development of a companion exhibit, Prisons Today, Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration, the nation’s first museum exhibit on the subject. It opened in May 2016.
This shift toward contemporary relevance has been met with continued growth of the site’s audience. Daytime historic site attendance grown by 400% the past ten years. The site’s audience has also become more racially diverse over this time, although challenges remain in that area.
Mr. Kelley oversees the historic site’s special events, including its haunted house fundraiser, Terror Behind the Walls. That event generates in excess of $2 million net revenue annually.
Mr. Kelley visits active prisons and writes critically about prison museums and sites of detention. He speaks widely on the responsibility of museums to address controversial and painful subjects, as well as the ethical and management challenges posed by large-scale fundraising events in sites with complex histories. He has served as adjunct faculty at Rutgers University, teaching Museum Studies in the graduate program in Public History.