Tag Archives: crime

The Crime Museum Uncovered – Museum of London

Museum of London / Alastair Grant

In fiction, we all love a good villain and sometimes even harbour a secret hope that they might triumph over the dull purity of the hero. From Shakespeare’s Iago to Alan Rickman’s dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham via the many crime lords that seem to pepper soaps these days, for some reason the very dastardliness of the villain makes them the most interesting characters. But in real life, while we certainly wouldn’t dream of endorsing their endeavours, the psychology of villains still fascinates us and the audacity of some crimes capture the public imagination for decades.

Earlier this year the Wellcome Collection set a high bar for its exhibition on Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime, examining the development of methodology and techniques by the police to solve mysteries. Building on this, the Museum of London has gained unprecedented access to the Metropolitan Police archive – or Black Museum – of criminal implements and artefacts used primarily to train would-be detectives, and never before seen by the public. It’s a fascinating exhibition that combines a variety of evidence used in the prosecution of notorious and less well-known crimes from robbery to fraud, terrorism to murder.

Established in the 1870s the Black Museum originally took possession of anything people had on them when arrested but soon developed an astounding collection ranging from actual murder weapons to court illustrations and death masks, so this exhibition opens with two rooms that recreate the museum itself, based on original illustrations, with lots of little display cases filled with personal effects as well as evidence used to secure a conviction. Although there are notes with each item, you’ll need to pick up the accompanying ‘newspaper’ guide that tells you the stories behind them – although given the crowds even on a Monday lunchtime it’s hard to take in all the information on display and read the backstories.

Some of the most chilling items in this section include one of the two pistols used by Edward Oxford when he attempted to assassinate Queen Victoria in 1840, a Police poster reproducing the ‘Dear Boss’ letter from Jack the Ripper, and a number of weapons donated by a police surgeon including a penknife used in 1898 by a man to commit suicide and a larger knife used to kill a woman in Shadwell in 1902. It’s probably important to say at this point that one of the primary aims of this exhibition is to ask questions about the propriety of displaying such items and what we can learn from them. Nothing is shown in a sensationalist way and as you’re looking at these things it’s impossible to feel anything but unnerved by the proximity to something that actually took a life.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the second room which along one wall displays 6 execution ropes saved from as long ago as 1847, used to end the lives of convicted murderers. It’s rare for an exhibition to create such a moral quandary but, having so recently seen the excellent Hangmen at the Royal Court, it is impossible not to feel slightly sickened by them even after you’ve read the story of the crimes behind them. Whatever your view on capital punishment it’s a challenge to stand in front of the evidence of it and not be repulsed.

The final room in the exhibition is huge and contrasts display cases about the development of police procedure with a wall of case studies of particular crimes from the nineteenth-century up until 1975. The decision to stop 40 years ago is a sensible one in order to protect the families of both victims and criminals still affected by the incidents depicted. For many, the stories of villains, as I suggested above, will be irresistible and this approach is really effective in giving a chronological history of crime and simultaneously showing that sadly human behaviour never changes. Each case has a description of the story on one side, sometimes with reproduced photographs from newspapers or later with short video reels. Next to that is the glass case containing the items from the museum and this section is no less testing that the earlier ones; it’s one thing to read about a man jealously strangling his ex-girlfriend because she’s become engagement to someone else, but quite another to then look at the scarf he used to do it.

Famous cases are plentiful including the Krays unused poison briefcase and the gun used to shoot Jack McVitie (recently depicted in Legend), as well as evidence discovered at Rillington Place from the Christie murders. Again you may have been fascinated by these people but it’s quite different to stand in front of the implements they used. This is by no means a bad thing, however, because giving this a proper human dimension takes away from the mythology that springs up around violent crime and reminds you that at the heart of it people died horribly and the perpetrators were deeply disturbed individuals.

It’s not all murder however and there are plenty of stories about other misdemeanours like theft including the fingerprints and crockery the gang left behind after The Great Train Robbery and the attempted diamond heist at the Millennium Dome. One of the interesting aspects of this exhibition is the way the detection of crime and advancement of forensic science runs through the stories, so it’s far more than a showcase for the crime itself, and each story tells us how it was solved – letting the viewer see the practical application the Crime Museum has for trainee detectives.

This new exhibition at the Museum of London is an excellent companion piece to the earlier Wellcome Collection show, and if you enjoyed that then this is definitely for you. While the stories of crime will continue to fascinate society, perhaps more than anything the conscious effort to address the moral dubiety of displaying these objects sets this apart, asking you to question everything you see and why you need to see it. We may all love a villain but The Crime Museum Uncovered reminds us that in real crime there’s always a victim and their story is usually full of suffering.

The Crime Museum: Uncovered is at the Museum of London until 10 April. Tickets are £12.50 (without donation) and concessions are available. Booking in advance is recommended as it is busy. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1. 


Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime – Wellcome Collection

We all love a good murder mystery, and there’s something about the committing and investigation of horrific crime that fascinates us. Whether your taste is for the gentle mystery of an Agatha Christie Poirot or Marple puzzle which is light on the gruesome details, or for the more graphic depiction of criminal activity in gritty dramas, chances are forensic investigation will have played a role somewhere. From fingerprint evidence to DNA samples the forensic elements in the process of identification and conviction of criminals fills countless books and TV shows every year.

This new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection examines the use of forensic evidence and its place in the process of detecting the perpetrators or crime. It takes you from the original crime scene, through the morgue, laboratory and ultimately to the courtroom, whilst giving an excellent overview of how practices and techniques have developed in the last century. Interweaved among the sometimes gruesome exhibits are some artistic works created by those inspired by the nature of death and decomposition, as well as insightful video interviews from those who collect, use and analyse forensic material as part of their work.

Investigators stat at the scene, so is a natural place for the exhibition to begin. The first thing you see is unexpected- what looks like a doll’s house with an open front but is actually a detail reconstruction of a house where a violent crime took place. Around the walls nearby are large scale colour photographs of reconstructed deaths in a bathroom and kitchen using dolls as proxy for the victim. It’s rather unsettling but an immediate insight into the way investigators need to understand the space in which the act took place. Now digital scanning is used to create a computerised image of the scene and a video explains how this works.

But things are about to get a lot more gruesome with photographs from real murder scenes, a piece of ‘art’ made from the floor on which the artist’s friend was murdered and some photographs that use luminol to show the remnants of blood spatterings many years after the crime took place. This really isn’t going to be an exhibition for the faint-hearted, but I found I became most squeamish about the behaviour of blowflies and maggots, attracted to the body, which are used to determine the time of death. Now I’ve seen a lot of Poirots and not once does the medical examiner ever mention maggots, even though this is their key method! Although, in this case I’m rather glad TV has lied to me.

Moving swiftly on, you enter the morgue and the techniques used to determine the cause of mysterious death – the autopsy. We learn that in France identifying dead bodies used to be a spectator sport and many a respectable Frenchman would pop down to the morgue for a bit of light entertainment – presumably on days when the opera or theatre was closed. There are some recreations and some real examples of injured body parts including a replica shattered skull, a pierced liver (as well as the knife that pierced it) and a brain showing the passage of a bullet. Alongside this are digitised index cards which tell the human story behind the work of the forensic pathologist including a woman who was hit by a motorbus, detailing her age, lifestyle and the condition of her organs, as well as the circumstantial details of the accident.

Once the relevant samples are collected, everything is then sent off to the laboratory for analysis, and in this section of the exhibition we learn about the development of finger printing techniques, charts with eye shapes and colouration, mug shots and more recently DNA sampling. It also includes some fascinating experiments with blood types and how the size and shape it leaves behind can indicate the nature of the death. So as well as seeing how different types of investigation have changed over time, this room shows that crime-solving techniques and scientific specialisms like toxicology and pathology were also developing along the way.

In the next room, the process returns to changes in search and identification techniques, where more human stories are emphasised. One interesting example is the use of head x-rays of a recovered body overlaid onto a photograph of a missing woman to prove it was her, and a touching video from the survivors of mass genocide in Chile who have spent more than two decades searching the desert for the remains of their relatives, becoming experts in identifying fragments of bone among the sand. It’s a sad reminder that while much of this exhibition has focused on individual crime, the expertise it unveils is also being used on a larger scale in the search for those lost in war and mass political crimes.

At the end of this detail process comes the moment in court and this final section gives examples of where forensic evidence has been used in trials, including the now contentious sentencing of the infamous Dr Crippen who was found guilty of murdering his wife, although recent DNA testing has cast doubt on this. So finally you get to hear from lawyers and those who have used forensics to actually prove their innocence, and questioning the role of the media in implying guilt before a trial has concluded.

Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime is one of the best exhibitions running at the moment and completely free – although you will need to judge how much is suitable for children (after the first room it’s less gory). I liked the way it balanced the scientific knowledge with engaging human stories, while subtly mixing in examples of medical art and important historical texts. It cleverly, and rightly, avoids getting caught up in fictional portrayals of detectives, and maintains its proper scientific focus throughout. It will certainly open your eyes to the vast array of specialisms that modern forensic scientists and the police can use, which is some comfort in knowing that however anonymous the person may be, all of this knowledge is called upon to solve the crime. I may prefer my murder mysteries light and lacking in carnage, but I probably won’t look at Poirot the same way again.

Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime is at the Wellcome Collection until 21 June and entrance is free, although timed entry by ticket may be in operation at busy times. Follow this blog on Twitter: @culturalcap1.


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