Many people know about the Met’s so-called “Black Museum” at New Scotland Yard; it is usually mentioned in whispered tones. The lucky few will preen slightly when they tell you that they have somehow managed to visit. This semi-mythical status has arisen because it is a private museum – the Crime Museum – whose purpose, from 1902, has been a training aid for detectives. But the genesis of the collection dates from the 1860s when it became compulsory for all prisoners’ belongings to be kept in safe storage. Most of these items remained uncollected, not least, of course, from criminals who had been executed. They were subsequently augmented with actual real case objects and other crime-related ephemera.
Hence the collection comprises thousands of items dating back to before 1829. About a third of them have been selected by curators at the Museum of London to be displayed to the public for the first time in this new exhibition: Crime Museum Uncovered. We have items which range from as far back as folk hero Jack Sheppard to as recently as the Glasgow Airport bomber and his fire-scorched laptop computer. Notorious criminals including Crippen, the Krays, the acid bath murderer and baby-farm murderer Amelia Dyer. Not only the likes of them, but totally obscure criminals whose cases are no less fascinating.
As you enter, the first several rooms set the nineteenth century scene and are deliberately arranged as the early Crime Museum may have been, using period display cabinets. We have about ten death masks of prominent murderers from before photography had become established. We also have court room pen and ink likenesses of people on trial, whether for murder, fraud or other myriad offences. They are sublimely done, by the illustrator William Hartley, for me the hero of this show. The curators clearly agree for they have rightly featured dozens of his illustrations over a number of displays. Apart from the defendents, they include judges, lawyers, courtroom staff, detectives and witnesses. Sitting just this side of caracature, they capture the all too human personalities of those in the witness stand, by turn evil, raffish, noble as the case may be.
The main hall of the exhibition is arranged with murders – infamous or interesting or both – down the right hand side while the left side and main body of the space is devoted thematically to types of crime: burglary, theft, forgery, terrorism, espionage and so on. As crimes and criminals became more sophisticated – more devious one might say – so too has the technology and method of detective work come along leaps and bounds: photography, fingerprint profiling, identikit, intelligence gathering and of course in the 20C – the Internet and CCTV. Ultimately, though, detective work – as they frequently emphasise on TV police shows – comes down to good old fashioned evidence gathering of the most mundane sort, which for me is the most interesting. So there are plenty of seemingly everyday objects – particularly in the murder displays – of cap badges, buttons, cigarette tins, etc.
This exhibition has been very thoughtfully curated, giving a fascinating insight into detective work in London over nearly two hundred years. It features, inevitably, extreme violence of both the criminal and the state without glorifying either, and being extra-careful to avoid sensationalism (there is some Ripper stuff, apparently: if so, I never saw it). It successfully exposes the all-too-human and tragic elements of crime without excusing it. This was their stated aim and they have achieved it with honour, I feel.
The Crime Museum Uncovered is as good if not better than the Cheapside Hoard show of a few years back, the Museum of London at its very best. I congratulate the curators and urge you to go and see it for yourself.
The Crime Museum Uncovered runs from today, 9 Oct, until 10 April 2016. Adult tickets from £10 and there are many associated events through the run. We understand this weekend is already fully-booked.