Criminal Historian

Working with dead people

Category: exhibition

Dark glamour and transgressive behaviour: Crime Stories in New York

Photo 28-05-2016, 05 50 19It’s not every day that you ask an information assistant at a museum where one of their exhibitions is, and they don’t know the answer – and even ask you questions about the exhibition, because they’re not aware of it.

This is what happened when I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It suggests that the particular exhibition I wanted to see wasn’t high up on their list of priorities, which is a shame – because it was a fascinating one, and one that I hope many visitors would have heard of and sought out.

The exhibition, Crime Stories: Photography and Foul Play, started in March, and runs until the end of July. It is positioned up on the second floor of the Fifth Avenue museum, round the back of the gift shop, and isn’t signposted virtually until you get to it. It’s not one of the main exhibitions the museum is promoting at the moment – evident from its volunteer’s blank face when I asked about it – but it is certainly the most unusual, being only feet away from works by Van Gogh and the likes.

The exhibition charts the history of crime photography, from the 19th century onwards. So we have a good look at French innovations of the Victorian era, in terms of criminal profiling and mugshots, offering a European perspective on crime and its recording. There are some fascinating artefacts – including Samuel G Szabo‘s ‘Rogues: A Study of Characters’ from around 1860, where the Hungarian photographer worked in collaboration with the police to make a study of offenders to try and identify the physical characteristics of the ‘criminal psyche’. His portraits include those of a shoplifter, wife poisoner, highwayman and murderer.

One of Bertillon's mesmerising images

One of Bertillon’s mesmerising images

There is, inevitably, Alphonse Bertillon‘s chart of physical traits of criminals, which enabled police to describe prisoners’ physical features in great detail, from their brows to their ears. Bertillon’s mug shots of suspected anarchists in late 19th century France are also here; and they are so detailed that you can spend a substantial amount of time just looking at them and noticing the detail of clothing, the colour of eyes, and so on.

Moving onto 20th century America, there are several photos by the infamous Weegee – press photographer Arthur Fellig, who produced sensationalist crime photographs, including ‘Outline of a Murder Victim’. There are also several 1940s crime scene photographs, and the curator has made the link between these photos and the film noir of the era very well, showing why these photos look so familiar to us in style and content. Famous assassinations – from Lincoln to JFK, and including Lee Harvey Oswald – are also, understandably, included; the latter two defining modern America.

The exhibition shows how we are both repelled and drawn to crime photography – its ‘dark glamour’ and portrayal of transgression appealing to our subconscious. It’s a well thought out, dark, but compelling display – and if you’re in New York over the next two months, it is well worth seeking out.

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The Crime Museum Uncovered, Examined

IMG_9761This 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.

IMG_9737There 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!

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.

IMG_9723To 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.

IMG_9745This 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.

 

 

 

 

A short investigation into The Crime Museum Uncovered

The death mask of Daniel Good, executed in 1842 for the murder of his wife. Photo: Nell Darby

The death mask of Daniel Good, executed in 1842 for the murder of his wife. Photo: Nell Darby

The Museum of London‘s major autumn exhibition, The Crime Museum Uncovered, opens in October. The exhibition utilises over 600 artefacts from the Metropolitan Police‘s infamous Black Museum to investigate (pardon the pun) the history of detective work and the museum over the past two centuries.

The Black Museum opened in 1875, but the exhibition provides some context by looking at the longer history of policing in London, from the formation of the Met under the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829.

Although its coverage of pre-20th century offences and convictions is necessarily limited by the smaller amount of artefacts in the Black Museum relating to this period, it then covers events up to the 21st century, from the Krays’ exploits and espionage in the suburbs to terrorism, from the Fenians to the 2007 Glasgow Airport attack.

I am really looking forward to seeing the exhibition when it opens, but have a few reservations about how it presents the artefacts, which I have explored in a piece for History Today here.

I’m hoping those reservations are unfounded; but inevitably, any exhibition that looks at crimes from domestic murders to terrorism has to balance the desire to get good “footfall” with the need to be sensitive about the narrative it explores about crime, detection and punishment.

If you want to get an idea of some of the things that the museum will be showing, Buzzfeed has, perhaps inevitably, produced a good list of 21 Morbidly Fascinating Things From Scotland Yard’s Hidden Museum Of Crime.

The death mask of Daniel Good, pictured above, will be one of the items on show at the exhibition, which opens on 9 October. Tickets can be purchased here.

The death mask of Daniel Good is being exhibited courtesy of the Metropolitan Police’s Crime Museum, New Scotland Yard, and was photographed during the Museum of London’s media briefing on The Crime Museum Uncovered.

 

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