The Crime Museum at the Museum of London

I’m not going to lie – I’ve been excited about this exhibition since it was announced, officially, in March. The Metropolitan Police Force’s Crime Museum, formerly the Black Museum was something that was taking on almost legendary status with this Museum Adventurer. Only accessible to the force, and of a particular interest to those who were in the process of becoming detectives, the Crime Museum was closed to the public.

The Crime Museum Uncovered at the Museum of London
The Crime Museum Uncovered at the Museum of London

However, with the Met going through significant changes, not in the least the moving from their famous New Scotland Yard premises the time has become ripe to share this macabre collection with the general public. The Crime Museum will continue to exist at the new premises, to teach a new generation of detectives about the horrors that have happened before. The design of The Crime Museum Uncovered echoes what the actual Crime Museum looks like, well, at least what it looked like in 1883, around ten years or so after it first opened.

A sketch of the Crime Museum from 1883 from the Illustrated London News
A sketch of the Crime Museum from 1883 from the Illustrated London News

Nothing like a death mask to set the mood.

The Crime Museum Uncovered at the Museum of London follows on from their blockbuster Sherlock Holmes exhibition and again, the museum is looking at the city’s dark underbelly. For real this time, not the fictional stuff.

Now, with the debacle, the omnishambles, the sheer WTFery of the recently opened Jack the Ripper Museum, it is interesting to see how an actual museum handles such sensitive topics. To begin with, the Museum of London treats the topic with respect. What is on display here aren’t just objects from some abstract crime, they are the material remains of real things that happened to real people. To avoid causing unnecessary distress, the exhibition does not look at any case later than 1975 in any details.

Those with an interest in the Ripper will be pleased to know that a piece of the Ripper’s story is on display – the  facsimile of the infamous Dear Boss letter.

A facsmile of the Dear Boss Letter
A facsimile of the Dear Boss Letter

I’m glad that this is on display – you can’t really tell the story of crime in London without at least mentioning Jack. I’m glad it is on display here because rather than sensationalising this piece, it is presented alongside other artefacts that relate to London’s criminal element.

The Ripper Mystery is interesting, don’t get me wrong, but the other stories that can be explored provide a greater understanding of crime and of police procedures.

The collection from the Crime Museum shows us that although the set-dressings change, the main motives for breaking the law remain constants. Greed, Sex, Jealousy and Politics again and again bring out the very worst in people. Even the prevention and punishment can bring out the worst too, especially when it comes to things like the Death Penalty. Reading the account in the Daily Mirror of the hanging of Ruth Ellis on July 13th 1955 was very moving experience. “Cassandra” writes:

“In this case I have been reviled as being ‘a sucker for a pretty face.’ Well, I am a sucker for all human faces – good or bad. But I prefer them not to be lolling because of a judicially broken neck.”

There is nothing wrong with valuing life, and state-approved murder is still murder.

The Crime Museum uncovered is an exhibition full of weird, fascinating little stories: Frederick Sutton visited the museum in 1905, and in 1912 he committed a murder that led to his belongings becoming part of the museum’s collection. The curators at the Crime Museum and the Museum of London just don’t know why Sutton visited, but it’s fun to speculate…

Like with Jack the Ripper, it would be impossible to stage an exhibition like this without the infamous Kray Twins. Gaining celebrity status in the swinging sixties,  the story of Ronnie and Reggie Kray still resonates with audiences, as can bee seen by their prevalence in popular culture.  Although the twins are most well-known as being nightclub owners, their other occupations included…:

  • Labourer
  • Soldier
  • Dog Breeder
  • Billiard Hall Keeper
  • Wardrobe Dealer
The Kray Brothers (1953)
The Kray Brothers (1953)
An amateur boxers of course.
If you explore the rest of the museum you might find this painting of Christ on the Cross. It’s official title is Crucifixtion (1972). It was painted by Ronnie Kray whilst in Parkhurst Prison and was given to Billy Webb, a childhood friend who visited Ronnie and Reggie in prison.
Crucifixtion (1972) by Ronnie Kray
Crucifixtion (1972) by Ronnie Kray
Now, the Crime Museum Uncovered isn’t just about the headline cases. A lot of the objects, indeed most of the Crime Museum’s collection comes from the mundane. Crime is not spectacular, it is usually petty, an everyday occurrence. This is something that makes people uncomfortable, and as curator Jackie Keily says at the end of the exhibition:
“Museums shouldn’t shy away from the uncomfortable.”
Looking at the objects, and reflecting on what I saw, it is interesting to consider that these things were never meant to be seen by the public. That’s the official Met line anyway. I feel that there are exceptions to this: the Dear Boss Letter, for instance was designed to be widely circulated; executions used to be a form of public entertainment and the stories themselves are reported by the media. Surely, then, the public are already familiar with the objects that the Crime Museum has to show?
But maybe not everything. I for one, did not like seeing the nooses used to hang criminals. I came over a bit funny when I realised that the trunk I was looking at once contained a dismembered body. That both museums involved took the precaution of using historical distance as a barrier did not entirely stop these artefacts from having an impact on the viewer.
The Crime Museum Uncovered is on at the Museum of London until 10th April 2016.





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