Tag Archives: Museum of London

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. 

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Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived – Museum of London

In all of British literature there are only two characters who have managed to escape from their books and take on a life of their own. Far beyond the intentions of their authors, they have been constantly reimagined, rewritten and rebooted through TV adaptations, films and homage novels by contemporary writers. Since their creation, every subsequent generation has found in them a modern hero just as suited to their era as to the one they originally belong, and able to triumph over the wrongs of the age. Their continued success resides in their very human ability to overcome their frailties, fallibility and oddities to defeat their enemies and protect Britain.  These two men have blurred fiction and reality for decades, and they are James Bond and Sherlock Holmes.

London has enjoyed a number of Bond exhibitions in the last few years and with Bond in Motion running until December at the Film Museum our favourite spy will continue to draw the crowds. But the Museum of London’s new Sherlock Holmes exhibition is quite unique and a rare chance to see something of the genesis of the character within the context he was created and his later absorption into popular culture. You enter this exhibition through a secret door in a bookcase, more Batman than Holmes perhaps, but a nice introduction to the world of secrets and detection. Most appropriately you are immediately greeted by the public image, the filmed versions and their original posters that demonstrate Holmes’s appear from the birth of cinema to the modern BBC.

Then almost like walking through the illusion the exhibition takes you right back to Conan Doyle’s very first manuscripts and notes for a character he initially called Sherrinford Holmes with his sidekick Ormond Sacker. In this early section we then see the more recognisable Holmes and Watson take shape in a number of short stories printed in publications such as The Strand Magazine before launching a fuller length novel. Most interesting is the idea that the image of Holmes was being created alongside the literary version through the illustrations of Conan Doyle’s father and later of Sidney Paget, and it is here, rather than the text, that the ‘look’ we know today comes from.

Having learnt a bit about the original stories and the author, this exhibition really begins to have fun with the material and we get to explore contemporary London and Holmes’s lifestyle through references in the stories. The great detective has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the capital’s streets so the Museum has created maps for three of the stories plotting the routes Holmes and Watson take by cab, on foot and by train. Underneath each is a video reproduction of the same journey taken today and played at high speed.  It’s all about context in this section and showing the viewer how Conan Doyle’s London would have looked under the strain of its expanding industrialised population. Paintings and photographs are used to highlight key places mentioned in the books – The Strand, particular hotels, The Tower of London and Trafalgar Square, which, although recognisably the same place, is yet so different without Lutyens 1930s fountains. We see pictures of the famous Hansom cabs that Holmes takes everywhere and the railway tracks and stations that gave greater mobility to his powers of detection. There is also a small section on the atmospheric London fog inspiring artists like Monet to depict its changing colours and ethereal effects.

The final room is filled with cabinets containing an array of Victorian and Edwardian artefacts which give a sense of the social history around Holmes. There are telephones and telegraph machines similar to the ones Conan Doyle would have envisaged his character using, examples of clothing, pince-nez, typewriters, stage make-up and wigs for Holmes’s disguises, furniture such as Paget’s own chairs which he installed in Baker Street in several illustrations, pipes, chemistry and fingerprint kits, as well as canes and the famous deerstalker. For fans of the current series they even have the blue great coat and dressing gown worn by Cumberbatch which will draw a lot of fans.

The Museum of London has pulled together a very fine exhibition here giving the viewer access to both original manuscripts and the context in which he was created. It’s a clever approach that simultaneously links descriptions from Conan Doyle’s stories to the world around him, and shows us those influences to provide new and clearer insight into the text. As one of Britain’s most enduring fictional characters there is a physical Holmes for every age; whether yours is Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey Junior or Benedict Cumberbatch, they are all here as part of the man who, as the subtitle of this exhibition tells, us will never die.

Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die is at the Museum of London until 12 April 2015. Tickets cost £12.55 (with donation) and a range of concessions are available.


Cover Story: Radio Times at 90 – Museum of London

As a massive TV-listings snob the only magazine allowed on the coffee table is the Radio Times, purchased every week for as long as I can remember. Even as a student it was my one luxury, read from cover to cover with tea and toast after Tuesday morning lectures. Lots of people only buy the famous Christmas issue and spend the rest of the year with an inferior publication, and you certainly get what you pay for. If you only spend 45p, then you get 45p-worth of value – soap spoilers and articles about dreary Sunday night hospital dramas. Instead in last week’s RT you could have read about child slavery in the industrial revolution, the consequence of removing bees from the natural world, Caligula’s reputation, successful female sports presenters and news reporting in war zones – and that’s not even half the content.

Understandably then, the Museum of London is celebrating 90 years of the Radio Times with a small exhibition of key covers from across the period, showing how the RT has explored and reflected national life as it happened – from the first ever TV broadcast to key historical moments including Second World War air raids, coronations, royal weddings and births, wars and changing Prime Ministers. There’s a 1920s Marconi radio on display, a Luftwaffe map, covers from the 60s and 70s announcing the birth of Radio 1 and interviews with Mick Jagger,  responding to shifts in music tastes, and an unpublished article on secret dealings in 80s politics.

There’s not much detail about the processes involved in producing the weekly RT and how decisions are made on controversial topics, but it is interesting to see how leading artists and photographers, as well as renowned writers have contributed to its relevance. There’s also a display dedicated to Dr Who with some selected covers and art work, plus a recreation of the award-winning Dalek on Westminster Bridge cover – photo opportunity for fans celebrating 50 years of the show.

The exhibition is probably a bit too small for a special trip, but the Museum of London is great so it won’t be a wasted journey. And on the way home, trade in your lesser TV mag for the Radio Times – and you’ll never look back!

The free Radio Times exhibition is at the Museum of London until 3 November.


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