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.