The Crime Museum Uncovered
at Museum of London
Until 10th April 2016
The Metropolitan Police’s Crime Museum, perhaps better known as the Black Museum, has been for the last 140 years a largely secret and private museum. Holding artefacts from some of the world’s most notorious crimes, it was created to inform and instruct the Met’s own detectives who, apart from invited guests, were the Crime Museum’s only visitors. Until now.
The Museum of London’s latest exhibition, The Crime Museum Uncovered, puts objects from this most-exclusive of museums on display for the first ever time. And what an extraordinary group of crime-related objects they prove to be, everything from courtroom drawings to death masks and from murder weapons to hangman’s ropes.
The Metropolitan Police has had the dubious privilege of apprehending some of the most legendary criminals in history, many of which are included in the The Crime Museum Uncovered – the famed 18th century thief Jack Sheppard, cat burglar and murderer Charles Peace, poisoner Dr Cream, the Acid Bath Murderer and of course the most famous serial killer in the history of crime, Jack the Ripper.
There are objects on show in this exhibition that are in themselves perfectly innocent but have become imbued with horror by connection with some ghastly crimes. The very ordinariness of an item such as the spade used by Dr Crippen to bury his wife conveys an oddly affecting sense of dread. Other exhibits are more directly redolent of violence such as the gun used by Ruth Ellis to murder her lover and the poisonous briefcase that the Kray twins intended to use against an Old Bailey witness.
Many of the cases in the exhibition demonstrate the advances made in detection over the years. On show in the exhibition are the sinister stocking masks used by the Stratton brothers who were the first criminals to be convicted in Great Britain for murder based on fingerprint evidence in 1905. The two brothers matched the description given by witnesses but it was the evidence from DI Charles Collins of Scotland Yard’s Fingerprint Department that matched the thumbprint on an empty cashbox to Alfred’s right thumb that brought the two to justice.
The exhibition looks not only at crime but also at punishment, from birching to hanging. The role of the executioner is addressed with an original trunk of hangman’s accoutrements on show which once belonged to Wandsworth Prison. The trunk contains not only the expected ropes but also straps to restrain the condemned person and even chalk to mark where on the trapdoor the condemned should stand. As well as this executioner’s trunk, a line of execution ropes hangs along a wall. Dating from 1847-96 these are the actual ropes that hanged a number of 19th century killers including Mary Pearcey, a 24 year old who murdered not only her lover’s wife but also his 18 month old daughter, and also the rope that hanged Amelia Dyer one of the 19th century’s most notorious baby farmers and murderers.
Whilst it would be very easy to simply see all this as gratuitously morbid and grisly, The Crime Museum Uncovered manages by dint of some excellent curation to avoid being merely a distasteful parading of gruesome artefacts and it becomes instead something both fascinating and rather moving. It’s a complex and difficult tightrope to walk but one ably done here. The victims of the crimes are kept front and centre throughout the exhibition and neither the crimes themselves nor their perpetrators are glorified. And if nothing else The Crime Museum Uncovered will make you feel immense gratitude for the work of the police and what they do to bring criminals to justice.
There is a place at the end of the exhibition to sit quietly for a few minutes, reflect on the victims of these crimes and listen to some thoughts from the Met’s officers. You would be well advised to take a moment because The Crime Museum Uncovered is an exhibition that will linger in the mind long after you walk out onto London Wall and resume your (hopefully and thankfully) crime-free day. Bravo, Museum of London.
The exhibition is open until 10th April 2016.
Adult from £10 (Wednesdays) online
Concession from £8 (Wednesdays) online
Book online and save up to £2.50 per ticket
Daily 10am – 6pm
Open late the first Friday of every month – the exhibition is next open late on Friday 5th February (until 9.30pm, last entry 7.30pm)
Museum of London
150 London Wall
London EC2Y 5HN