This morning, I was able to attend the press preview of The Crime Museum Uncovered, the Museum of London‘s major new exhibition, which opens to the public this Friday.
I have previously written about the exhibition on this blog and on the History Today website, where I had expressed concern about how the exhibition might end up mythologising criminals, through its publicity focus on the likes of the Krays and the Great Train Robbery.
So did the exhibition allay my fears? Mainly, yes.
There has been a concerted effort on the part of the curators to keep in mind that every crime has a victim as well as a perpetrator. Where possible, they have included photographs of both offender and victim(s), so that the visitor is always reminded of those who have suffered as a result of violence.
This has been particularly well done in the case of the display about the Great Train Robbery. It is easy to forget, given the fact that a movie was made about one of the robbers, and another was made out almost to be a folk-hero, that there was a victim – Jack Mills, the train driver. In the exhibition, in the middle of an array of artefacts, is a striking black and white image of the injured Mills, bandaged and bruised. There is no detailed commentary about this – there is no need. He is at the centre of the display, where he should be.
And the uneasy questions that might arise from an exhibition of crimes, criminals and criminal artefacts are not evaded – they are faced straight-on. The final room of the exhibition is an area for contemplation, where visitors can submit their views on computer screens, or sit and listen to talking heads discuss issues around the exhibition – including the key one:
“Should this collection be open to the public?”
Here, the likes of Victims’ Commissioner Baroness Newlove and KCL Chair of Philosophy Law Leif Weinar join individuals from the Met, the Crime Museum and the London Mayoral office, as well as Jackie Keily, co-curator of the exhibition, to talk about the exhibition and the issues it raises.
Perhaps the main problem of the exhibition lies in the sheer amount of information it presents – through items rather than words. There is so much to look at that more than one visit may be needed to do it justice.
There is also the problem of emphasis. The emphasis is not on the Crime Museum’s early history; at the long-lead press preview, I was told this was because of a relative lack of artefacts from its early period – all of the Crime Museum’s early material was going to be included, which suggested there wasn’t that much. But there is – and it has been crammed into too small a space.
The recreation of the Crime Museum room to house these earlier artefacts is a great idea, and the room has been designed well as a space. But it is too crammed with stuff, meaning that it is difficult to view everything clearly. The prime example is that of the criminals’ death masks, which are fascinating – but they are placed round the room on a high shelf, making it difficult to see them very closely.
Too high, m’lud!
Criminal records are all put together under the glass of a table, too many for the space. For those of us particularly interested in the early history, it is frustrating not to be able to see everything clearly.
To get from this space to the more spacious room that details themes and individual cases, visitors make their way through a corridor where the nooses used to hang notorious figures line one side.
This is done well; each noose, with a small label detailing who it was used on, against a backdrop of a Victorian image of a crowd baying at an execution.
The first room in the exhibition, which leads into the ‘recreation’ of the Crime Museum is also a perfect way to start, with its introduction to the museum and its timeline of key events in policing history. If anything, I would have liked more of this history and context.
The only thing I didn’t like was the first thing you see when you come down the stairs to the exhibition space – a modern police car, all brash and well-lit. It seems to sit incongruously with the darker tones of the exhibition and its primary focus on a prior history.
But the Museum of London has an incredible pedigree of producing absorbing, informative, yet interactive and easy to follow exhibitions, such as its Dickens and Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men ones, both of which I enjoyed.
This doesn’t fail either; a lot of thought and research has gone into uncovering the Crime Museum.
Although I may have liked to see more input from criminal historians (not just me!), it’s still a thoughtful, and careful, exploration of crime and those involved in it – criminals, victims, policemen, and others within the criminal justice system who have had to deal with often disturbing or upsetting cases, but who have, till now, been neglected.
The Crime Museum Uncovered opens on 9 October and continues until 10 April 2016; tickets can be purchased from the Museum of London here.
Tomorrow, on this blog, I will be reviewing the book that accompanies the exhibition – The Crime Museum Uncovered: Inside Scotland Yard’s Special Collection.