The infamous ‘Black Museum‘ of Scotland Yard, officially known as the Crime Museum, is a collection of criminal memorabilia kept at the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police Service at New Scotland Yard. Founded in around 1874, it has been used for over a century to help the police in their study of crime and criminals. While the existence of the museum is widely known, it is not generally open to the public.
This all changed a few months ago when the Crime Museum Uncovered exhibition opened at the Museum of London. The exhibition was instigated by the Crime Museum itself, which has wanted to open up to the public for a while, but was concerned about the sensitive nature of the exhibits. Throughout the exhibition we are invited to question the ethics of putting such items on display, and to think about what they can teach us. As part of this sensitivity, the series of displays about specific crimes only go back as far as the 1970s.
The exhibition begins with a room which has been reconstructed from the original museum. It contains court sketches, Victorian-era mugshots and death masks, reflecting the nineteenth century obsession with phrenology – the belief that the shape of a person’s head could reveal their personality and character. This room is fascinating as it reveals how the Victorians thought about crime. There is also a disturbing selection of hangman’s nooses which were used on famous criminals.
The major part of the exhibition is laid out chronologically, with each case devoted to a different crime. Some of these cases are famous – Crippen, Christie, Ellis – others, less so. This section could easily be sensationalist, but instead it is informative and well-presented. The descriptions on the cases give prominence to the victims, not just the criminals, and the role of detectives and the police is emphasised: many of the cases have been chosen because of their significance in the history of detection and evidence, such as the first case in which a conviction was secured thanks to the use of fingerprints.
Sure, some of the exhibits are a bit gruesome: Crippen’s spade, the acid bath murderer’s gloves, a selection of masks made from stockings to hide the wearer’s face. However, all of them are informative, and some are even funny – such as the “false footprint makers” used by a would-be burglar to leave footprints around the crime scene. His cunning plan failed after he left his own footprints alongside the fake ones.
As well as displays focusing on individual crimes, there are themed displays containing fascinating artefacts, such as weapons confiscated from criminals, concealed weapons (including a pair of binoculars containing concealed eye spikes), and abortion pills and implements (from the days when abortion was illegal). Some items relate to modern-day crimes. These include the fake jewel used by the police in the attempted theft of the Millennium Star diamond from the Dome in 2000, and a selection of IRA mortars fired on Downing Street and MI6. There is also an unexploded nail bomb.
At the end of the exhibition there is the opportunity to watch a short video exploring how appropriate it is to open up these collections to the public. My friend and I spent a good couple of hours in here, in this informative and fascinating exhibition. It is thoughtfully put together, sensitively curated and hugely worthwhile – one of the best exhibitions I have ever seen.