London: The Crime Museum Uncovered @ the Museum of London

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A lot of places I’ve always wanted to visit seem to be popping up on here of late (I really must update that page one of these days), and the Black Museum is no exception.  I’ve wanted to see the Black Museum FOREVER, but unless I decided to become a London police officer, it seemed like that was never going to happen, seeing as how the Crime Museum (as the Black Museum is more properly known) has been closed to the general public for the entire 140 years of its existence.  Fortunately, they recently decided to do a collaboration with the Museum of London, called The Crime Museum Uncovered, wherein some of their less-sensitive objects (basically, stuff more than 40 years old) would go on display, open to everyone willing to part with the eye-watering £15 entry fee.

Well, ridiculous entry fee or not (and seriously, why are museums not offering me free tickets by now?  I really need to get my name out there), there was no way I could let this one slip by unvisited, thus, I headed out there with my boyfriend so we could at least take advantage of the National Rail 2-for-1 offer (and I strongly suggest you do the same.  Strangely, I can’t find it listed on their website, but you can pick up a booklet from any train station in London, and just fill out the voucher on your way there).  We managed to go on a weekday, hoping we could at least avoid some of the crowds that way.  How silly we were.

Though we didn’t have to queue to buy tickets, and we were allowed immediate entry, once we got downstairs to the exhibition, I could see it was virtual chaos.  The first three rooms of the exhibition were not very big, and people were positively packed into them.  Although they might limit the number of people allowed entry at any given time, clearly they don’t limit them enough.  And this was early afternoon on a weekday, so I can’t even imagine how hellish it gets at the weekend!

Anyway, my aversion to crowds aside, I was still super excited to see the exhibition.  Because of the nature of the artefacts on show, no pictures were allowed, except at the entrance, so you’ll have to use your imagination.  They did have a very nice free guide available, meant to look like a Victorian newspaper (though not completely accurately, as the front page of every 19th century newspaper I’ve seen was entirely devoted to advertisements), which was good as the captions in the first couple of exhibition rooms were extremely limited, and hard to read in the press of people regardless.

The actual first room simply contained a timeline of the Crime Museum’s history, but the next two rooms had a jumble of objects from the early days of the Crime Museum, including death masks, courtroom illustrations, and the ropes used to hang various criminals (which I was somewhat surprised by, as I’d read many hangmen used to sell the ropes as souvenirs to make a little extra money (or quite a lot of extra money, depending on the criminal), but perhaps there wasn’t as much of a market for ones from less notorious murderers, or else there were some scrupulous hangmen out there).  I was probably most excited to see Franz Muller’s death mask, having read Kate Colquhoun’s book on the first train murder, but my voracious reading of historical true crime books paid off through the whole exhibition, as I’d heard of many of the criminals mentioned here (not sure if that’s really something to brag about, but whatever).  I also enjoyed the Victorian mugshots, and some of the courtroom illustrations.  One of the criminals in the illustrations was rather handsome, so I was relieved he was only a forger, and not, you know, a wife murderer or something.

The main gallery was devoted to some of the most notorious murderers of the first century of the Crime Museum’s existence; it was essentially an illustrated guide to Gordon Honeycombe’s informative book Murders of the Black Museum, which I own and have consulted numerous times, so I was again familiar with almost all the featured criminals. However, this was the most crowded space yet, and would prove the source of my greatest annoyance.

Upon entering, there was a neat display case holding an executioner’s kit right in front of us (apparently ropes could be used a couple of times, which means that not all the hangmen were selling them off, as I speculated above. ETA: I just saw the excellent play Hangmen, which shed a further (humorous) light on the practices of mid-20th century  British executioners), but it took five minutes alone just to get a look at that, because there was a queue of people snaking through the entirety of the gallery, and it was not moving.  I could already spy the Crippen display, and I was stoked to see it, but there was no way I could get close through the masses of people (I was doing my usual impatient/annoying museum trick of forgoing the queue to stand right behind people in front of whatever I wanted to see, and darting in as soon as they moved, but even that wasn’t working, because these people literally would not move.  Just read it and move on!).  So I was forced to give the most interesting things the merest glance, and move on to the less-crowded cases, which obviously weren’t as cool.  I did dart back at the end to re-visit some of the displays, and found it not as busy, but I still couldn’t get right up to anything because people were constantly in the way.  I know I probably need to work on my impatience and hatred of crowds, but if I spend that kind of money to see something, I do expect to at least be able to look at the things I’m paying to see.  They REALLY REALLY need to limit the amount of people they let in for each time slot.

But yeah, the stuff that was here was clearly awesome, from Cora’s alleged hairs found in Crippen‘s basement, the flypaper arsenic samples used to convict Frederick Seddon, and the trunk John Robinson shoved Minnie Bonati’s dismembered corpse into, to the gallstones that were almost all that remained of the corpses in John Haigh’s acid tub. If I could actually get a good look at this stuff, I would have been over the moon.  As it stood, all that was really visible was the description of each person’s crime, which was almost identical to what was written in Honeycombe’s book, when really what I wanted to peek at were the artefacts themselves, which only had small labels that were difficult to read from a distance.  There was some other stuff in this gallery as well, like items used in forgeries or terrorist attacks in London (mostly IRA), but not too many people were looking at those, because they weren’t as grisly.  However, I was grateful that the case of autopsy tools had no one in front of it, because I got a good look at Sir Bernard Spilsbury’s evisceration knife, which was awesome (just to clarify, he was a pathologist rather than a murderer.  It was only corpses he was eviscerating!). The last room just contained a film that I didn’t take the time to watch, so annoyed was I by the crowds, and led into a small gift shop that contained a number of intriguing-looking crime related books, even a few I hadn’t read yet!

So, obviously the objects on display were all things I really wanted to see, but the experience was almost entirely spoilt by the number of people inside the damn exhibition.  I feel like the set-up could have been better, because all the murderers were packed along one wall, with the other glass cases on the other one.  If they’d alternated the murderers with the not-so-interesting cases of non-homicidal crime related stuff, I think people would have moved along a bit faster.  Or if they’d simply had more gallery space to devote to it.  I’m so glad I finally got to see some of the stuff from the Black Museum, but this was far from the ideal space to view it in.  The Museum of London really needs to step up their game, especially at the prices they charge for special exhibitions.  Still, if you’re as obsessed interested in true crime as I am, especially London-based historical crimes, you really do need to see this, just maybe try to get there right when the museum opens to beat the crowds a bit.  It runs until the 10th of April, 2016, so you’ve got plenty of time to get there.  4.5/5 for content, 2/5 for organisation and crowd control (or lack thereof), so about a 3.25/5 overall.

 

 

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7 comments

  1. I went the first week it was open and agree that the content is fantastic but the flow of the exhibits and thus crowd control definitely could be improved. It was tough to get close enough to read everything!

  2. It’s always a shame when crowds can ruin a museum visit as exciting as this one was for you (I probably spent less than an hour at the Louvre because of crowds and me being impatient).

    1. Yeah, when I went to the Louvre I just spent hours wandering down this long Italian Renaissance corridor because it was one of the few places that wasn’t crowded. It was soooo boring though! Everything just looked the same after a while.

  3. Grrr, this made me itchy with annoyance for you! I’d love to know if they had anything from Ruth Ellis’s hanging. I have a soft spot for her. One of my favourite detective writers, Howard Engel, wrote a book called Lord High Executioner: An Unashamed Look at Hangmen, Headsmen, and Their Kind. I got to meet him once and we had a great time talking about ol’ Ruth.

    1. I think they did have some Ruth Ellis stuff, but I can’t remember what exactly because we couldn’t take pictures, not that I could have gotten close enough to take a picture anyway. Maybe the gun she used? They talk about Ruth a bit in that Hangmen play I mentioned; the main character is one of Pierrepoint’s rival hangmen, and he talks a lot of crap on Pierrepoint, which is pretty funny. Especially if you’re a crime nerd.

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