I am not really looking forward to this exhibition, I have learnt, particularly over the last few years of volunteering, that I don’t deal well with emotional objects, and with the press bandying words around like ‘gruesome ‘and ‘macabre’, I am not sure the Crime Museum Uncovered will be for me. Trying to move from the previous blockbuster at the Museum of London with the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, to the real detectives featured in this new exhibition is no easy feat, and although I am not keen to visit I am really intrigued about the process involved in tackling this difficult topic.
Normally I like to go to exhibitions completely cold, I don’t read reviews or brush up on the subjects, I like to just see where the displays take me and the connections they make. I was really privileged this time to sit down with one of the co-curators Jackie Keily and the collections assistant Zey for an in-depth chat through their work before I visited. So much has been written recently about the Ripper Museum showing not only how easily a museum can get it wrong but also our eternal fascination with brutal crimes. The ethics of a display are a hot topic and I wanted to know how the Museum of London project team approached the content and thought through the presentation of the objects.
I began by asking Jackie how the Museum of London become involved with the Crime Museum in the first place and she talked about a lengthy process of discussion between the Metropolitan Police (Met), and the London Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC). With New Scotland Yard being put up for sale, the Black Museum, as it was previously known, would be moving to a new home and there was a debate on whether the time was right for a public crime museum. The Museum of London display provided a perfect opportunity to look at public reaction and gauge opinion on taking the private museum into the public arena.
I asked Jackie how she felt about being involved and how she managed to detach herself from the victims behind the objects. We talked about her archaeology background and dealing with human remains, how time can allow you to put distance between the realities of how objects were used and lives changed. Objects are ultimately just that, for Jackie it was about telling the stories and giving not just the notorious criminals, but the often forgotten victims, a chance to be remembered. She felt a responsibility to represent them respectfully and they gave themselves a cut off date of 1975 to put some distance between events.
Working closely with Paul Bickley the curator at the Crime Museum they were given carte blanche to choose objects. The exhibition features around 600 objects, and in particular focuses on 24 criminal cases, they worked with an ethics committee and closely with the London Policing Ethics Panel in selecting those objects. The Met contacted families in some cases and represented their wishes where relatives of victims were still alive. They focussed on displaying cases that showed advancement in police techniques or forensics, for example the Stratton Brothers, the first criminals to be convicted on fingerprint evidence.
Those 600 objects and 24 cases in reality touched on the lives of hundreds of people and Jackie told me the hard part was telling those stories on a limited word count and I can tell from speaking to her that she researched widely but not all that detail could be expressed in a few hundred words. I talked to Zey about the practicalities of handling such a collection, we began at the museum as volunteers together and it is fantastic to see her working on such a high-profile exhibition as a fully fledged museum employee. She draws my attention to one case in particular, Foxtrot One One, and the murder of three unarmed police officer in 1966. She tells me how seeing the basic wooden truncheons displayed next to one of the guns used to kill them really highlights how the policemen had no chance to defend themselves. It is a case that has stuck in her mind and in 1966 it raised calls for a return to the recently abolished death penalty.
When I finally visit the exhibition I find it hard to divorce all I already know about the work behind the scenes and view the displays objectively. It is clear as you walk round that the museum is trying to translate their thought process across to the visitor and engage them in the conversation about display, perhaps more than any other exhibition I have ever seen.
I love seeing the old-fashioned blue police light right at the start, the only item to have come from the Museum of London collections, it has found a home amongst these items and sets the tone as you begin. Alongside the individual cases run themes such as disguised weapons, counterfeiting and drugs, you can see in these items the genesis of the collection as a teaching tool, not only for modern-day police to understand the sheer range of weapons and of historic cases but also how the police force has developed and evolved. I find it easier to look at this section, so finally I pluck up the courage to read some of the individual stories.
Many are famous, the Krays, the Richardsons, John Haigh – the Acid Bath Murderer, I only recently watched ’10 Rillington Place’, a 1971 film where Richard Attenborough gives an absolutely haunting portrayal of serial killer John Christie, to suddenly see crime scene photos and evidence is honestly quite shocking. There are many cases not familiar to me but I am sure my parents would recall the bleak headlines of the time. After I have read a couple I glance up and see all the cases stretching away into the distance, I find this quite hard to know at every step there are more horrific stories and revelations.
In particular I find the objects and case from 1942 of Gordon Cummins, the Blackout Killer, particularly difficult. Then I see an original label attached to an item which highlights it is the property of Cummins, I read that the beginnings of the museum came as a holding pen for the personal possessions of those arrested. It made me think about the journey of these objects, many incredibly banal and mundane, a pair of stockings, a silk scarf, a kitchen knife, they begin their life being owned by someone, then they play their part in a violent act, now they have become evidence and museum objects and finally they are here on public display.
When I talked to Jackie we talked about ‘powerful’ objects, but without the story there is no power to them, we give them that power and it is why the telling of those stories is so important. When you marry the object and the story it is true I do find it hard to read and digest but just because something is difficult doesn’t mean the museum should shy away from opening it up to public discussion and view.
As I carried on I became slightly overwhelmed by all the cases, perhaps there were too many on display. If I am being picky I did find some of the display cases looked a bit crowded and over filled. I also found the large dotted print images on each panel a distraction in the corner of my eye as I tried to read the text, but to be honest I really am looking for things to criticise. The aim was to bring the victims to the fore but with so many, after a while I became numb to the horrors.
The final section on terrorism I found very powerful, it is not a topic from the historic annals but an ever-present threat in the here and now. The replica of the Hyde Park bomb from 1982 which killed 11 people and 7 horses, hidden in a suitcase packed with nails is a brutal object, you can’t help but think of the intent, time and planning behind such items and it chills you to the bone. It is such a counterpoint to the individual cases committed by infamous individuals, the terrorism we face now is often nameless and faceless, the victims themselves rendered lost in the multiple numbers yet each mourned so deeply by their families.
Should the collection be permanently displayed? Do we become desensitised to violence and death by opening it up to public scrutiny? Or is it by telling individual stories well, with care and sensitivity, that we come to a better place of respect and understanding of what it is to be human.
Upstairs in the galleries there are skulls from Roman London, the individuals are believed to have faced violent deaths, we don’t know their names but they are not forgotten and the Museum of London tries to tell their story. The question of time, distance and context are difficult and there are no hard and fast rules. It is such a responsibility to tell the story of Londoners, the good and the bad and all those that sit in-between. I am proud of the Museum of London for putting on the Crime Museum Uncovered, spending time with Jackie I can see all the work and care behind what is also a blockbuster exhibition designed to pull in the crowds.
I think what the Museum of London is doing is making space to have those conversations about the future of this collection, they have started that process and in their capable hands they have done a fantastic job. It also brings to the fore so many questions on the ethics of museum displays and emotive objects, whilst in a way I never wanted to go to this exhibition, it is a really important one that is not to be missed.
The Crime Museum Uncovered opens on Friday 9th October 2015 and runs till 10 April 2016, for opening times and to book tickets please see the website. Museum of London – Crime Museum
I am a volunteer at the Museum of London. Any inaccuracies are purely my own and nothing to do with Museum of London staff. With massive thanks to Jackie Keily and Zey for taking the time to talk to me about the exhibition. Also to Roy Stephenson who always supports my writing and blogs.