Scotland Yard’s ‘Black Museum’ Of Crime Uncovered
These masks were worn by robbers, and make you realise just how far removed from fantasy real crime was.
Once they were housed in what was known as the Black Museum. It comprised two back rooms in Scotland Yard and was filled with the artefacts of violent crime, to be shown only to police officers. For years there has been talk of moving its contents to a permanent exhibition. Two things held up the plans; finding an appropriate space and an appropriate voice for such an endeavour. After all, criminals should not be honoured with museums (no matter how much the Krays film ‘Legend’ tries to suggest otherwise). With the disastrous and highly offensive opening of the Jack the Ripper Museum, a set of cheesy tableaux designed to wring cash from tourists that has been deemed bogus by almost every reviewer, how could a museum of crime ever work in London?
The answer is by having it curated at the Museum of London in a sensitive and intelligent manner that places the crimes in their proper contexts. Created with the support of the Metropolitan Police Service and the Mayor’s Office for Policing And Crime, the exhibition considers the changing nature of crime and advances in detection over the last 140 years, as well as the challenges faced in policing the capital, such as terrorism, drugs and rioting.
The exhibition is divided into two sections; first comes a recreation of the original museum, and that’s followed by a looser canter through case histories and general themes, none of it very much in-depth. So here are all the usual suspects, Haigh, Crippen, Christie, Ellis, trunk murderers and poisoners, guns and nooses, knives and diaries, spying equipment, drugs, an umbrella gun, the Krays’ execution suitcase, and the first surprise is how mundane and small everything appears. Could this ridiculous little knife really have cut a throat? Could this tiny pistol have actually shot someone through the heart? The Victorian criminal past appears as a grey and deeply depressing place – and perhaps that’s the point; crime is usually pathetic and makeshift, and has none of the grandeur given to it by cinema.
In the latter half, the cut-off date for these artifacts of crime is the mid-1970s, to protect those who still suffer the after-effects of violence, and the focus is London-based. An exception to that deadline is made for terrorist activity; indeed, probably the most horrifying item on display is a reproduction of a case containing a nail-bomb. Although it’s all too easy to imagine the thing exploding on a crowded train, it’s inauthentic, and jars. But it does recall the various devastating attacks in London, from the IRA, a lone lunatic and Islamic terrorists, which are all within our recent collective memory.
There’s some newsreel footage on show but not a lot, and the explanations of some pieces fall a little short, but this is still a unique collection, albeit a toe dipped into a much bigger subject. Hopefully that will be rectified when the display moves to a permanent home.
For me, two items stood out. Charley Peace’s collapsible burglary ladder – Peace was a legendary criminal who, somewhat incredibly, appeared in a regular comic strip when I was a child. And the binoculars with sprung-loaded spikes which later featured in the film ‘Horrors of the Black Museum’ – I’d always assumed that they were mythical, but no – here they are, along with other objects sporting concealed blades.
The exhibition is going to expand if it settles somewhere for good. It’s not as lurid as the old Chamber of Horrors used to be, by any means. I remember being terrified by the acid bath murderer’s actual bathtub and bottles of acid – there’s nothing like that here. And mercifully there’s very little about Jack the Ripper for once (for my own take on that subject, read ‘The Burning Man’). Instead we have brief histories of sad little crimes and their sepia, faded mementoes – none of them glorifying violence, and perhaps because of the fact that they are denied a more carnivalesque approach, one comes away with melancholy thoughts of prosaic personal tragedies rather than the awe of shocking murder.
The Crime Museum Uncovered is at the Museum of London until next April. It’s best to book in advance at weekends.