Longtime readers may have a vague recollection of my post on the old City of London Police Museum, written way back in April 2014. Well, sometime in late 2016 (or maybe mid-2016, because I did hear about it a while ago, and kept saying I ought to check it out, but it’s taken me until now to actually get ’round to it), they closed the old museum, which was located inside a working police station, and re-opened in a gallery next to Guildhall Library. Interestingly, I think this is the same gallery that the Clockmakers’ Museum (which I blogged about in January 2014) was formerly located in, as it appears that the Clockmakers’ Museum has since been relocated to the 2nd Floor of the Science Museum (meaning both those posts are now outdated, but I suppose that’s one of the hazards of long-term blogging).
Assuming the new City of London Police Museum is where the Clockmakers’ Museum was (I’m like 80% sure that it is, simply because I know that was also in Guildhall Library, and they can’t have that many museum spaces attached to the library, I don’t think), they have really completely transformed the space – in my opinion, not for the better. I remember the Clockmakers’ Museum being one large, rather elegant room, with wooden floors and beautifully presented clocks in glass cases all around the space (because you weren’t allowed to take pictures in here back then, I have no photographic evidence, but that’s the impression it made on me, anyway). In contrast, the Police Museum is downright claustrophobic-feeling in parts, because they separated what was one big room into a number of tiny rooms, and in spots where there were other visitors standing, we literally couldn’t move around each other without bumping into things. Plus the floors are black, and the ceilings are black, and most of the signs are black; taken all together, it gives the room an oppressive atmosphere.
But I suppose I shouldn’t waste too much time comparing it to another museum entirely, when the more pertinent question is: how does it compare to the old City Police Museum? Well, admission is still free, fortunately, and the objects have actual labels now, which is nice, but almost everything else compared negatively with my experience of the former Police Museum. (If you actually clicked the link at the start of the post and read my old post, this might seem a bit repetitious, but bear with me.)
The old museum was also small, but it was absolutely crammed full of stuff (which is probably why they didn’t have room for labels), and I was expertly guided around it by the delightful Bob, who was a retired police officer (OK, the tour did end up taking three times as long as I was anticipating, but it was so interesting that I stuck with it). Because Bob had actually been on duty during various London calamities – most memorably, the Moorgate Tube Disaster – he was able to go above and beyond what any sign could convey, with actual anecdotes and his own theories about what could have caused the Tube Disaster. Obviously, you can’t put hearsay on a sign (well, I mean, you can, but not if you want to be considered a reputable museum), so although the new museum probably did a better job of sticking to the facts, it was quite bland and dull by comparison. It also contained the merest fraction of objects that the old museum did (I assume they wanted to move at least partly to free up space in the Wood Street Police Station, but they must still have to store all the old stuff somewhere) – although they kept many of the highlights, such as the Olympic gold medal won by the City Police team at tug-of-war, the helmet of an officer caught in an IRA blast (helmet absolutely destroyed, but it saved the officer’s life), and one of the early police hats (a reinforced top hat that officers could stand on to peer over fences and such), the old museum had loads of police ephemera, like an entire wall of Jack the Ripper newspaper clippings, that apparently didn’t make the cut.
The old museum kind of had objects from different historical periods all stuck together, but the new museum is divided up into a series of chronological rooms, from the early days of the night watch, up until the modern policing era. Which is fine, but there’s an awful lot of text relative to the amount of artefacts. One new feature, that I’d read about before visiting, was a re-creation of Catherine Eddowes’ (one of Jack the Ripper’s victims) last night alive, which she spent at a City police station (she was arrested for drunkenness and brought to a cell to sober up. Shortly after being released at 1 in the morning, she was killed by the Ripper, presumably an easy target on account of her intoxication, so the police afterwards took some flak for releasing her in the middle of the night). For some reason, I was picturing this as an actual cell you could walk through, with perhaps a projection of Catherine on the wall telling her story. Instead, it was a set of goggles mounted on a wall that you looked through to see a video of a woman dressed in Victorian clothing pacing around a cell. This was certainly less than thrilling, especially as I had been hoping for authentic smells.
The only other real “interactive” feature (other than trying on police hats, which is always a joy) was a test you could take to see if you were a super recogniser, but it seemed to be having trouble connecting to the internet, and wouldn’t load (I have taken super recogniser tests before online, so I guess this wouldn’t have told me anything new, but it still would have been fun to do, had it worked). The rest of the museum only highlighted a few notable police cases; other than Jack the Ripper, there were also the Houndsditch Murders, which I won’t discuss in detail here because it’s in the old post, and the aforementioned Tube Disaster; and very briefly touched on things like the suffragettes (it was kind of bizarre, frankly, because they just had a sign saying that some people consider suffragettes heroes today, but they used to be considered terrorists. The museum provided no real context or detailed description of the suffragette movement) and the IRA bombings. It also contained a wall of old uniforms (I quite liked the women’s uniform from the ’70s, which included a polka dot blouse and a stylish wool coat, though I can’t imagine that was the ideal kind of outfit to be fighting crime in) and “weapons” (including a wooden hair pick and a nasty-looking homemade metal stabby thing. I would have loved to know more about the stories behind those, but alas, that information wasn’t here). The most interesting thing was probably the statistics on the sides of the walls leading into each new section, which showed how many people lived and worked in the City during the given time period (the population of the City (aka the Square Mile) has dropped dramatically from the time of Victorian slums, and only about eight thousand people actually live there today), as well as how many crimes of each type were committed (in addition to murders and robberies and such, it also included things like animal cruelty).
So although I should have been glad that the museum had the opportunity to move into a new, slightly larger space, it unfortunately left almost all its character in the old museum. Compared to Bob’s stories about sifting through piles of animal bones on the banks of the Thames to try to find the remains of a murder victim, collecting meat orders at the end of the a shift from the Police Box near Smithfields, et al, the new museum is sadly watered-down and banal. I think the problem isn’t even the vast decrease in objects on display, so much as the lack of personality, which was something that abounded in the old museum, thanks to Bob and presumably the other guides as well. Leaving the old museum aside for a second, I also have to think how this museum compares to the many, many police museums I’ve seen around the world, and again, it performs unfavourably. Considering that most police museums are housed in large, freestanding buildings (usually former jails or police headquarters), and contain excellent grisly displays (which are most definitely not present here. They even managed to talk about Jack the Ripper without actually describing what he did to his victims. C’mon now), I find the lack of space and attention given to a police museum in London, one of the most famous and otherwise museum-rich cities in the world, rather appalling, and I really hope this situation can someday be remedied, because this new museum is certainly not the answer (granted, the City Police are only responsible for policing the Square Mile, so I can kind of understand why their museum isn’t huge, but I don’t think the Metropolitan Police even have a museum, other than the Black Museum that the public isn’t allowed in, so this is really all London has to offer, police museum-wise). A real disappointment. 1.5/5.