Scotland Yard's special Crime Museum collection has been presented in thoughtful style at the Museum of London
Anyone visiting the Museum of London’s latest exhibition, The Crime Museum Uncovered, will surely do so with some element of morbid curiosity. The promise of objects never seen before by the public and the lure of the promotional material – “the most deadly weapon...ever seen” – are difficult to resist.
© Museum of London
And at first, the exhibition might seem to play to this: among the first objects you encounter are a jauntily-parked police car, a Victorian handbill declaring “Verses on the Dreadful Murder of Mrs Crouch of Marylebone” and a pincushion made by a regular inmate of Clerkenwell Prison, neatly embroidered with her own hair.
But almost immediately you are also hit with the real stories of very real people: criminals, victims and investigators alike.
A stark display of six nooses – each associated with an individual execution and accompanied only by the names of the executed and their victims – strips away any sense of excitement or sensationalism.
This approach is characteristic of The Crime Museum as a whole – confrontational but not gratuitous, personal but not intrusive, emotive but never mawkish, the exhibition thoughtfully probes our ideas about crime and punishment.
© Museum of London
The ethical conundrums faced by the curatorial team, who worked closely with the Metropolitan Police, the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime and the London Policing Ethics Panel, are subtly intercut throughout the exhibition.
This insight into their development process is fascinating, and encourages a different, more critical, way of looking at and thinking about the objects on display.
Of course, a collection like this is not short on shocks. A pair of binoculars with spring-loaded spikes in the eyepieces, given by a man to his ex-fiancée, is just one of the pieces that will make you recoil at the warped imaginations of criminals past and present.
In the main space, 24 real-life cases are examined. They trace the evolution of crime and crime detection over the decades, from the earliest murder conviction based on fingerprint evidence in 1905 through the first use of real-time surveillance and psychological strategies to end a siege in 1975.
Some of these cases remain notorious today: on display are the spade used by Dr Crippen to bury his murdered wife, Cora, and casts of the bones and gallstones that were all that remained of Olive Durand-Deacon, the last victim of John George Haigh, the infamous Acid Bath Murderer.
Others are less well-known, such as the murder of Ruby Keen, illustrated not by any gruesome artefact but by the pretty silk scarf that was used to strangle her. In many ways, it is everyday objects such as this, used for terrible purposes, which have even greater power to shock than the more obviously frightening weapons on display.
Throughout these 24 cases, and the thematic displays that accompany them, it is the personal stories that are the focus: from the early mug shots of petty criminals that show us the faces of a sector of Victorian London that we never normally see – their occupations given as labourers, hawkers, servants and clerks – to the prominence given to the victims of crime, who all too often remain nameless, faceless and forgotten.
The exhibition ends with a reflection space that encourages you to take a moment to remember those victims, both of the past and of today, and to consider the implications of what you have seen. It’s a welcome and fitting conclusion to an affecting, at times distressing, yet always thought-provoking experience.
Like all great exhibitions should – but all too rarely do – The Crime Museum Uncovered raises more questions than it answers. There is plenty here to appease that sense of morbid curiosity with which you arrive, but much, much more to keep you thinking long after you leave.
- The Crime Museum Uncovered is at the Museum of London until April 10 2016. Open 10am-6pm (closed December 24-26). Admission £10-£14, book online.
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