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Early Police Museum illustration ILN 1883

Review: The Crime Museum Uncovered, Museum of London

Neatly lined up death masks, a row of nooses and glass cabinets filled with every imaginable murder weapon (and more) are all on show at ‘The Crime Museum Uncovered’ exhibition at the Museum of London. The objects are taken from Scotland Yard’s Crime Museum (or ‘Black Museum’), created in the 1870s to help train police officers in the techniques of criminals and the methods used in the past to catch them.

Inside the Metropolitan Police's hidden Crime Museum at New Scotland Yard, 2015 © Museum of London
The Crime Museum at New Scotland Yard © Museum of London

The Museum of London have carefully curated the exhibition, keen to stress that the collection reflects changes in detective and forensic work, and isn’t just about tapping into people’s morbid fascination with murder and death. Either way it’s been a hit thanks to the infamous crimes some of the objects relate to.

Jack the Ripper appeal for information poster issued by Metropolitan Police, following the 'Dear Boss' letter sent to the Central News Agency, 1888. Reads: "Metropolitan Police...Facsimilie of Letter and Post Card received by Central News Agency...Any person recognising the handwriting is requested to communicate with the nearest Police Station." © Museum of London / object courtesy the Metropolitan Police’s Crime Museum
Metropolitan Police poster (3rd October 1888) appealing for information about Jack the Ripper, reproducing the ‘Dear Boss’ letter (25 September 1888) which gave the serial killer his name © Museum of London

The first bit of the exhibition showcases some of the oldest parts of the Crime Museum collection, including Jack the Ripper-associated artefacts. The second part looks at 24 specific cases in detail, with booth-style sections about the victims, the crimes and their detection. These cases only go up to 1975 due to the obvious issues involved in displaying the details of more modern brutal murders. There is a final section on terrorism though, including very disturbing reconstructions of the backpacks of the 7/7 London bombers.

There’s a lot to read, and after five or so booths we could feel ourselves becoming a bit numb to the information, much of which involves the murder of women and the sensationalist media reports of these cases.

2. Spade used by Dr Crippen to bury his wife, Cora, in 1910 ∏ Museum of London
The spade allegedly used by Dr. Hawley Crippen to bury his wife Cora after he murdered her in 1910. Crippen was hanged for the murder after the remains of a body were found under his basement (without a head, limbs or skeleton). Some argue that the body wasn’t actually Cora’s © Museum of London
1. Trunk used by John Robinson to conceal the body of Minnie Bonati, 1927 ∏ Museum of London
The trunk used by John Robinson to hide the dismembered body of the prostitute Minnie Bonati after he murdered her in 1927. Robinson wrapped up the body parts in brown paper parcels, put them in the trunk and dropped it off at Charing Cross train station’s left luggage office. The crime was discovered when staff noticed the smell coming from it © Museum of London
The Acid Bath Murderer: Objects relating to the murder of Mrs Olive Durand-Deacon by John Haigh, 1949 © Museum of London
The gloves worn by John Haigh the ‘Acid Bath Murderer’ to dissolve his murdered victims in sulphuric acid, before he sold off their possessions. Haigh was hanged in 1949 for the murder of 6 people after his attempts to destroy the evidence were thwarted. Olive Durand-Deacon was his final victim, a wealthy widow whose purse and 3 (undissolvable) gallstones (above) were found at Haigh’s ‘workshop’ © Museum of London

One of the most horrible bits of the exhibition is a selection of DIY weapons, including a pair of binoculars a man reportedly sent to an ex. When the binoculars are put into focus long, sharp spikes shoot out into your eyes.

There are also a few cases of women on the wrong side of the law, including Ruth Ellis, who you can’t help but feel sorry for, and the ‘Finchley baby farmers’, who provoke the opposite reaction.

A curious pin-cushion embroidered with human hair by Annie Parker, a woman who, in her tragically short life, was arrested over 400 times for alcohol-related offences (1879). © Museum of London / object courtesy the Metropolitan Police’s Crime Museum
A pin cushion (1879) embroidered with human hair by Annie Parker, who was arrested over 400 times on charges of drunkenness. Annie gave the cushion to the chaplain of the Clerkenwell House of Detention. She died of consumption aged 35 © Museum of London
13. William Hartley Courtroom illustration of Amelia Sachs and Annie Walters on trial for baby farming, 1903 ∏ Museum of London
A William Hartley courtroom sketch of Amelia Sachs and Annie Walters, known as the ‘Finchley baby farmers’, who took in newborn babies from desperate mothers and charged fees for finding adoptive parents. In reality the women were poisoning the babies and keeping the money for themselves. It’s possible that dozens of babies died this way. Sachs and Walters were hanged in 1903 © Museum of London
8. The Smith & Wesson .38 revolver used by Ruth Ellis to murder David Blakely, 1955 ∏ Museum of London
The gun Ruth Ellis, a nightclub hostess and prostitute, used to murder her lover David Blakely outside the Magdala pub in Hampstead, 1955. Blakely, a racing driver, was by all accounts a nasty piece of work – he’d previously punched Ruth in the stomach during an argument, causing her to have a miscarriage. Ruth Ellis was the last women to be hanged in Britain. Her story provoked debate about the death penalty, which was abolished 10 years later © Museum of London

Whether or not the exhibition succeeds in making you think about the victims as much as the perpetrators of the crimes is debatable. Drawing on Scotland Yard’s collection means there’s a heavy focus on the objects used by or associated with the criminals, which leads to a sense of detachment from the actual people involved in many cases.

But as a visitor of the collection you’re in good company – special guests could access Scotland Yard’s Crime Museum too, and the exhibition has an electronic version of its old visitors’ book that you can swipe through, with Arthur Conan Doyle, Houdini, and Laurel and Hardy all listed on it. Above all The Crime Museum Uncovered is testament to the enduring appeal of the macabre, and our centuries-old desire to get up close and personal with it.

Ronnie and Reggie Kray: Briefcase with syringe and posion intended for use against a witness at the Old Bailey (never used), 1968 © Museum of London
A deadly briefcase contraption the infamous East End gangster twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray intended to use on a witness at the Old Bailey (1968). It contains a syringe with poison, plunged into you when a button was pressed © Museum of London

Opening times and prices

The Crime Museum Uncovered runs until 10th April 2016. The Museum of London is open from 10am-6pm every day, and there are a few late-night weekend openings of the crime exhibition coming up. Prices range from £10-£14 per adult (cheapest on Wednesdays).

How to get there

Museum of London, 150 London Wall, London EC2Y 5HN

Barbican and St. Paul’s are the nearest tube stations.

Katherine Conlon

Freelance content writer specialising in social history.

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