Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The Crime Museum

at the Museum of London

150 London Wall
Barbican EC2Y 5HN

Wednesday 11 November 2015

When we compiled our list of Museums back in 2014, the so-called 'Black Museum' at Scotland Yard was firmly labelled 'no public access'. So when the Museum of London announced a temporary exhibition of some of the collection, we of course went along. Equally of course, we chose a Wednesday for our visit since that is the day it is cheaper.
No photography is allowed after the entrance, so here is the entrance.

There are a few more images here.
We began with a timeline of key developments: the 'Peelers' established in 1829 and the Detective Division in 1842 and so on through the formation of the Museum in1875 and the establishment of the fingerprint section in 1901. Items in the Museum come from the Prisoners Property Store, after all appeals are over: very few criminals returned to claim their property after they had completed their sentences, and of course in the days of capital punishment, many were not around to do so.

The first two rooms showcase some of the objects from the Museum as depicted in illustrations in the 1880s. Above us were the death masks of people hanged outside Newgate Prison (though executions ceased to be a public spectacle after 1868), and the walls were covered with courtroom illustrations. Among them was George Woolf, hanged at Newgate in 1902 for killing his girlfriend, as well as many others, the drawings sufficiently detailed to be turned into plates for printing in the Police Gazette and other publications. There was also the pistol with which Edward Oxford attempted to kill Queen Victoria. In the next room were ropes used to hang several criminals, for example the one which dealt with Amelia Dyer, hanged for killing a 2 month old baby at her 'baby farm'. On an adjoining wall was the business card of the executioner, William Marwood.

Poisoners, forgers, gamblers and housebreakers lined the walls, together with some of their 'kit'.  The Police Force used the Museum as a training aid to show new recruits the sort of thing they might expect; but there was also clearly a kind of ghoulish pride in what had been stopped or at least punished.

The exhibition then continued with a series of case histories:  some were significant milestones in detecting: the first fingerprint conviction; the first time bullets were matched to guns; the first time experiments were done to demonstrate that one could extract arsenic from fly papers, and so on. Some of the displays were of notorious murderers, like Crippen, Haigh and Christie. All these gave an opportunity to show developments in police methods such as the use of publicity, radio communications and careful forensic examination of crime scenes. On the other hand, this roll call of villains rather confirmed the fact that it is usually women who get murdered, and usually by men. Having said that, Ruth Ellis was here too: the last woman hanged in Britain (in 1955), after she had shot the man who brought on her miscarriage by punching her in the stomach. 

The rooms also contained themed cases, about forgery and counterfeiting, about the Cold War and spying, and about terrorism.There was a gruesome case of disguised weapons, such as binoculars from which sprang spikes to blind the user, and a shot gun umbrella.  But on the whole, the exhibition was more thought provoking than deliberately horrific. Events like the 7 July 2005 bombs, and the Iranian Embassy siege were put in the context of crime fighting rather than anything else.

Both the Museum of London and the Metropolitan Police have clearly thought  hard before embarking on this event. The last room has a range of talking heads explaining and discussing what the aims are, and the constraints, mainly connected with the needs of victims, which they imposed upon themselves.  Policing is a key part of life in London, which makes the Museum an appropriate venue.

As with all museums nowadays, they wanted the opinions of visitors. Linda and I gave our opinions to a Danish student who is doing some kind of paper based on the reactions of people leaving the exhibition.

We thought it was well worth the price, and hope that some at least of the extraordinary collection which is the Police Museum will continue to be available to the public even after this exhibition closes in the spring.

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