This story is not very political but I hope it’s of some interest regardless.
I spent some time exploring the museum’s permanent exhibitions beforehand, which was really interesting as it tells the tale of London chronologically, from the time of mammoths, to the Great Fire, the culture boom in the sixties, the 7/7 bombings, all the way up to the 2012 Olympics and beyond. The installations are really well explained and every change seen throughout London is delivered in an understandable but similarly academic way, making it a great place for both adults and children (of which there were many).
The Crime Museum Uncovered, for those who are unfamiliar, is an exhibition of the infamous Metropolitan Police’s Black Museum, a collection of evidence from historic crimes across London, dating back to the foundation of the Met in 1829, used to train new Met recruits. The exhibition at the Museum of London is the first time the collection has been on public display, largely as a result of funding received from the sale of New Scotland Yard.
The exhibition starts with the infamous letter from Jack the Ripper to the Met, in which he first names himself ‘Jack the Ripper’. There’s an indescribable eeriness that comes from seeing the exact paper that such a well known serial killer wrote on, and this feeling only continues through the exhibition. There’s a fake passport used by Ronnie Biggs. A pair of binoculars with spring-loaded spikes that a man gave to his ex-fiancé after she left him. A whole display of items used when abortion was still illegal. The gloves and mask used by the Acid Bath Murderer. I mean, it’s really disturbing. It’s odd to stand and look at these things, knowing what you know about what the objects became, and look at them on display like it’s nothing. I’m still not sure I’ve registered that the normal everyday objects I saw (a scarf, for example) were used to end someone’s life. Four days after visiting, and I’m looking at things and wondering whether they’ve ever been used in a deadly crime. I don’t think I want my brain to make the connection between everyday object and murder weapon, because all too often they are the same thing, and if that is not horrendously shocking to you, I don’t know what is.
Just to warn you, if you do decide to visit, the place is packed. It’s a very popular exhibition and at times, it’s hard to move or to read the displays, but there’s no time limit on your visit, so I recommend skipping the busy bits at the beginning and coming back to them at the end. It’s interesting that such a morbid and disturbing collection of items has attracted such national (and even international) attention, and this is spoken about throughout the exhibit. I went on my own, so I spent a lot of time listening to other people’s conversations and observations of the exhibit. A lady was very annoyed, perhaps even angered, by the display on the 7/7 Bombings. The crimes end just after the Krays’ arrest, but the end section on terrorism is very recent and somewhat more chilling as everyone visiting the exhibit can remember first-hand hearing about the attacks. The collection discusses the use of the death penalty, and at the terrorism section, I heard more than one person speak in favour of the death penalty for the terrorists involved, had they not been suicide bombers. It’s interesting that the whole exhibition speaks of actions and their repercussions, yet people are still willing to take an eye for an eye.
At the end of the exhibition, there are screens with questions on that you can answer, things like ‘should this display be available to the public?” and “why are we so fascinated by crime?”. I filled in my answers, and then I was able to read other people’s responses. Someone answered, “the lady next to me has terrible breath” and someone else simply wrote, “penises” for all the answers. I remember shaking my head at that. Why would you spend an hour or more going around this exhibit, learning what you’ve learnt and knowing what you know, and answer that? I think the collection has a really strong message and is trying to emphasise some really important points about crime, but responses like that clearly show that the message has not got through to everyone.
Throughout the collection, there is a startlingly clear focus on the victim over the perpetrator. A series of videos at the end of the exhibition talk about victim culture, and the fact that the majority of the population knows who Jack the Ripper was but cannot name a single one of his victims. It’s sad but true, and it raises some interesting questions about historic and contemporary media coverage of crime. There are domestic violence cases, imprisonments and robberies alongside the gruesome murders, but the majority do not go into details of the killer. More often than not, the focus is on the victim and their life before the event (and after, if it was not a murder). Sometimes people do really, really bad things and no one can understand why, and the exhibition really highlights that through its explanation of each case.
If you are near London or visiting before April 10th, I highly recommend visiting this exhibition. It’s eye-opening and sad and quite disturbing, but above all, it says a lot about human nature, and it’s worth visiting for that, if nothing else.