The Crime Museum Uncovered at the Museum of London

Some years ago, when I was a very small crime aficionado, I wrote to New Scotland Yard asking if I could make an appointment to visit their Crime Museum.  I received a very nice letter in response from the then curator, James Mackle, explaining that while he’d be happy to show me around, he felt that as I was only seven at the time, he’d be happier if I wrote again when I was a bit older.  I don’t think either of us expected the wait to be in the region of forty years – but that’s how things turn out sometimes.

This exhibition at the Museum of London displays only a part of the Crime Museum’s many exhibits and has been carefully curated to maximise public interest whilst minimising public offence – or speculation.  Any cases which remain unsolved or open are omitted from the galleries.  This has led to what I will later call “the 1975 Rule” and although I confess to finding it a little irritating, I quite understand the reasoning for it.  It is worth bearing in mind that some of the items on display relate to very recent events – certainly many of which I can remember quite clearly – and it is obvious that a great deal of care and consideration has gone into setting up the exhibition without causing unnecessary distress.

The very first item the visitor sees on entering the gallery is a 1996 Rover 826, painted white with the distinctive fluorescent yellow and red horizontal stripe down the side, surrounded by police crime scene tape.  This car would probably bring back memories for many people of a certain age; growing up on a South London council estate, the tell-tale “nee-naw” of the siren would inevitably be followed by tribes of children jeering at the “jam butties”, as these cars were known.  Happy days.

After a brief but fascinating history of the Metropolitan Police and Scotland Yard in particular, which includes a lovely introduction into the creation of the Crime Museum itself, the visitor is led into the Victorian Crime section.  This would not be complete without at least a small reference to Jack the Ripper, and the reproduction of the “Dear Boss” letter as part of a wanted poster (Reward £100) was quite special.  The drawings and lithographs of some of the suspects gave a very human touch to a crime that has made itself a legend to London historians.

The exhibits generally are wide ranging and include the identity cards of a handful of prisoners, each of which include their measurements, distinguishing marks, a note of their crimes and interestingly, the sentences each received.  It is sobering when looking at these early mugshot photographs to reflect that some of these offenders received extensive custodial sentences when barely in their teens – usually for the theft of the equivalent of twenty pence.  It’s haunting, really.

Many of the exhibits in this section relate to crimes and criminals who are perhaps less well known than their twentieth century brethren – Charles Peace with his magnificent folding ladder being a case in point.  Sadly, this is a part of the exhibition that I can imagine some visitors rushing through, as it’s not well known and therefore not “interesting”.  It’s a dreadful shame, as this is a really interesting set of exhibits.  How else would you discover the wording of an execution order – or even that you could be executed for forgery in 1832?

In fact, I learned something here.  I had never heard of the Harley Street Mystery before now, yet it merited three exhibits in this section.  I still know very little about it, so my project now is to find out a bit more.  I hate not knowing these things.

Moving on from this room takes the visitor along a small corridor, one entire side of which is entirely dedicated to the work of the hangman.  It was fascinating to see the visible differences in rope thickness and drop length needed to accommodate the different physiques of the condemned.  I had some fun trying to work out which one was used to hang a woman – I got it horribly wrong, so perhaps that’s not a good career path for me.

On the other side of the corridor, alongside material featuring the trial of the Tichborne Claimant – a case I have never failed to find interesting – is an interactive sample of the Crime Museum’s Visitor’s Book.  Now this really was an eye-opener.  Whilst some entries are pretty understandable and almost to be expected, really – such as Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – I would never have expected to see the names of a touring Australian cricket team and the cast of a Broadway show.  But there they were, alongside a former Prime Minister and the Governor of the Bank of England.  Remarkable.

The large exhibition room at the rear is the meat of the display, and is also where the impact of the curating decision is felt.  Twenty four individual cases dating between 1905 (The Stratton Brothers) to 1975 (The Spaghetti House Siege) are featured in some detail, featuring contemporary newspaper reports or Pathe newsreels alongside the sometimes grim exhibits. It was felt very strongly by the curators that no case after 1975 would be treated in this way to avoid upsetting surviving relatives, but also where possible, consent from relatives affected by the cases on display was sought and this is explained in the notice at the entrance to the room – please do take the time to read it.  This is what I call “the 1975 rule” and whilst I found it irritating – I would have liked to see, for example, something from Donald Neilson, the Black Panther – it is perfectly understandable and doesn’t detract in any way from the impact of the display.

Each of these exhibits, traversing the length of the right hand wall as you enter the room, is a case of historical or criminal importance, and they are very well labelled, identified and put into context.  Many of them are so well known – Ruth Ellis, Dr Crippen – that it is slightly like visiting old friends, but although some are less well known, they remain interesting and frequently gripping. And despite being forty, fifty, sixty years old, or even older, they are still able to provoke quite emotional reactions from some visitors.

Alongside these detailed examinations of key cases are themed displays, featuring exhibits used in the training of police officers.  It must also be pointed out that the 1975 Rule does not apply to these themed exhibits, so do not be surprised to find reference to the attempted Millennium Diamond heist in 2000.  Unsurprisingly, these displays take a much broader scope (although I did like the amount of detail in the Great Train Robbery section) and are considerably less specific.  That said, they really illustrated the amount of ingenuity and skill many criminals need to be successful at their chosen trade; and the espionage and counterfeiting sections, both quite large, really opened my eyes to just how clever these people can be.

Some of these themed exhibitions occupy island stands in the centre of the room, and I found these to be a little bit of a let down.  For a display that is visible on four sides, simply having the captions on one side is a little confusing and did detract from the enjoyment of the exhibits.  That said, they were extremely interesting, and the development of the Murder Bag from Sir Bernard Spilsbury to Sir James Cameron did seem to mirror the growth in the amount of stuff I have found in my handbag since becoming a parent.

At the far end of the gallery, and essentially the last display visitors will see before leaving the exhibition, is the terrorism section.  Now, in light of events in Paris which occurred the evening after I visited the museum, I have elected not to dwell on this section in any great detail, for obvious reasons; but the objects date from turn of the century Fenian bombs to the Downing Street mortars and a laptop computer found in a burned out car just after the 7/7 bombings in 2005.  It is all very powerful stuff and a display that does merit a very lengthy dawdle.

The Crime Museum Uncovered is a very well organised and generally well curated exhibition that will repay more than one visit.  It is surprisingly poignant and thought-provoking in places.  I was especially moved while standing in front of a burned out riot shield from the 1985 Tottenham Riots and trying to imagine how it must have felt to have been in a situation where your only form of protection is literally melting in your hands.  That said, it’s not perfect – no exhibition like this ever could be – but it was a very good mix of well known and lesser known crimes, all treated with the same meticulous respect and attention to detail.

If I have one quibble – and this reflects on my first paragraph – it would be the visitors.  On the day that I visited there were a number of toddlers and young children in the exhibition and some were becoming quite distressed, which did interfere with my enjoyment.  I do strongly think that exhibitions of this nature should have an age limit – it doesn’t have to be old, say twelve or thirteen – but it’s not an exhibition suitable for children.

Overall, was it worth waiting forty years for?  Very much so, and I expect I shall go again before it closes to the public in April 2016.  Once that happens, I fear I shall have to pen another letter to Scotland Yard – and see all the bits that I missed!

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