Scotland Yard's Secrets Go On Show
"Good morning," we chirp to the stoney faced suit on the door. Not a reply; not a nod. Then we see the earpiece. This fellow's from the Met. All his concentration is bent on guarding a griffin's cave full of unsettling treasures. Our next hour will be spent in the company of knives, guns and knuckledusters, the disquieting keepsakes of Scotland Yard's Crime Museum.
The Crime Museum (sometimes called the Black Museum) was established in the 1870s as a teaching aid for policing professionals. It contains thousands of items from crime history, including key artefacts from the country's most notorious murders. The museum has never been open to the public, although a log book notes such visitors as Arthur Conan Doyle and, bizarrely, the Australian cricket team. Now, anyone can get a look at its most remarkable objects for the price of an exhibition ticket at Museum of London.
The exhibition was instigated by the Crime Museum itself. The museum has long wanted to open its macabre collection to the public, but the sensitive nature of many exhibits has always held it back. This exhibition is a testing of the waters; the partnership with Museum of London is a way to gauge public reaction and work through the morality of displaying artefacts from murder scenes. Such contemplation is evident throughout the exhibition:
Presenting violent crime to a public audience is inevitably a difficult balancing act, as a certain museum in east London recently discovered. The curators appear to have bent every sinew to ensure that these displays are sensitively handled. Sure, there are plenty of gruesome exhibits: Crippen's spade, a selection of nooses, the acid-bath murderer's rubber gloves and dozens more. All are presented in sober context. Equal prominence is given to victims, murderers and detectives, so as to give a more rounded, less sensationalist picture of the crimes. To avoid causing distress to living relatives, most artefacts relate to crimes beyond or at the edge of living memory.
Still, there is some recent stuff here, and it's fascinating. One case deals with the heist gang who attempted to steal the Millennium Star diamond from the Dome in 2000 — including the fake jewel planted by the police. A terrorism display, meanwhile, includes the IRA mortars fired on Downing Street and MI6. And if you ever wondered what a nail bomb looks like:
Much of the exhibition deals with the most notorious murders of the 19th and 20th century: Crippen, Christie, Ellis, Haigh... it's like a thinking-person's Chamber of Horrors. Other types of crime are represented, though, and much of the more absorbing content can be found away from the infamous stuff; a pair of 'false footprint makers' adds a rare note of humour to the exhibition. A would-be burglar stamped them into the ground, leaving tiny footprints around the crime scene. His plan was idiotically flawed, as described on the label.
Another cabinet shows a miscellany of weaponised gadgets straight out of Q's laboratory. A lipstick containing a miniature dagger, a mobile phone taser, and these horrific binoculars that conceal a pair of eye-spikes.
The show occupies Museum of London's usual temporary exhibition space, yet somehow seems twice as big as its forebears. If you wanted to examine every object and read every label, we're talking around three to four hours. Be sure to watch the film at the end, as well. It further explores the morality of opening such collections up to the public.
For the unique and previously unseen content alone, this show would be an automatic four stars. But the careful presentation and balanced curation make this yet another five-star show in a year when London's museums continue to surpass themselves. Some might say that it's crass to showcase such crimes. If you side that way, we'd urge you to go along and see if this nuanced exhibition can change your mind.
The Crime Museum Uncovered: Inside Scotland Yard's Special Collection is at Museum of London 9 October till 10 April 2016. Tickets are £10 if bought online.
Last Updated 09 October 2015