In the final room of this grisly exhibition, which is comprised mostly of murder weapons borrowed from the Metropolitan Police’s 140-year-old Crime Museum, you are invited to watch a series of videos. These attempt to justify what is undoubtedly a controversial show by addressing earnest questions such as, “What does it mean to put these objects on public display?” and, “What do they tell us about the people involved?”
I have a question of my own: can we not just be honest about all of this? The exhibition has surely been curated – and will no doubt be a knockout success for the Museum of London – because we are all endlessly fascinated by the morbid and the macabre. Discovering how fingerprint recognition was developed is interesting enough, perhaps. But the crowds will be flocking to see the spade used by Dr Crippen to bury his wife in 1910 and the trunk in which John Robinson concealed his victim in 1927. Give over to your ghoulish curiosity, and you’ll have a jolly old time.
The Metropolitan Police’s Crime Museum, which is permanently housed at New Scotland Yard, was established in the mid-1870s as a training tool for young officers. It is still used for that purpose today, but this is the first time that any of the objects in the collection have been put on public display.
There are plenty of arresting facts to digest – for example, New Scotland Yard’s famous revolving sign spins 14,000 times a day – but what is most remarkable is just how well most of the artefacts have been preserved. It is still possible, for example, to see the slight sheen on a hangman’s noose, which dates back to 1847, where the rope rubbed against the necks of the executed. Inevitably, the largest section of the exhibition is dedicated to murder cases (others include drugs, abortion, and armed robbery). Twenty four of the most notorious, dating from 1905-1975, are illustrated with weapons, pieces of decisive evidence and original photographs. It is certainly not for the squeamish.
Throughout the show, though, there is a Cluedo-like quality to the accompanying words. This is not to say that the crimes are trivialised – every effort has been made not to glamorous the cases. But the detached, rather dated style is welcome, given the horrific nature of the subject matter, such as in the account of the infamous Cold War murder-by-umbrella of Georgi Markov: “On 7 September 1978, a Bulgarian defector felt a sharp pain in his leg while standing on Waterloo Bridge...”
For all the shock and gore, however, it is the more reflective, concluding section on terrorism that is most unsettling. A replica of the rucksack carried by one of the July 7 suicide bombers is more chilling than a knife could ever be, precisely because it appears to be so unthreatening. Crime, this exhibition intelligently illustrates, continues to evolve. It is a powerful message, sneaked in at the very last minute – a cloak-and-dagger operation, you might say.