The Crime Museum
The Crime Museum is a museum within a museum. Established in the mid-1870s by serving police officers to train recruits, the Crime Museum has been opened to the public for the first time at an exhibition hosted by the Museum of London. With its Brutalist architecture, the Museum of London looks like the perfect setting for many a crime, no wonder Ian Fleming named a Bond villain after one of the key proponents of Brutalism. Putting the building’s lack of aesthetic appeal aside, as a museum it’s always worth a visit and this latest exhibition has proved a real draw with the opening hours having been extended till midnight in order to cope with demand. This says a great deal about the public’s fascination with crime. I waded through a sizeable crowd to see guns, knives and poisons that had actually been used as murder weapons. Death masks of executed murderers lined the shelves and the nooses that had broken their neck hung from the ceiling. I doubt anyone who attended would have found this a pleasurable experience in the traditional sense, and this poses a dilemma for the curators. A lot of visible work had been put into the ethical dimension of the exhibition. None of the murder cases that are documented took place after 1975 in order to minimise the possibility of causing distress to the surviving family members of the victims. Although there were briefer references to more recent terrorist attacks by the IRA and radical Islamist cells. Aside from the occasional references to espionage, terrorism and organised crime, the key focus of this exhibition was murder. Reading about the grisly crimes of John Christie or John George Haigh (the Acid Bath Murderer), I was left certain that these monsters deserved their appointment with the hangman. But the curators take an even-handed approach. Other displays, which highlighted the miscarriages of justice, or simply how the law was applied in less enlightened times, which led to the executions of Derek Bentley, Ruth Ellis and Edith Thompson brought back my more liberal, anti-death penalty instincts.
Police ingenuity is a recurrent and welcome theme here. Visitors get a glimpse of how of fingerprinting aided investigators in murder cases, how wireless telegraphy played a role in the capture of Dr Crippen, and more recently, how the Flying Squad foiled the Millennium Dome diamond heist. However, documents relating to the Jack the Ripper murders are a grim reminder that the police cannot solve every case.
Browsing through the museum shop afterwards, I came across many books and DVD’s that were either factual or fictional accounts of the crimes that were documented in the exhibition. Dance with a Stranger (1985), The Krays (1990), 10 Rillington Place (1971) and Let Him Have It (1991) were among a number of titles that featured prominently. I also spotted multiple copies of PD James’ wonderful novel The Murder Room (2003). In the novel, a murder takes place at the fictional Dupayne museum located on Hampstead Heath. The title refers to a room dedicated to real-life murders. How typically ghoulish of James to have her fictional murder committed there. In the novel, world weary policeman and poet Adam Dalgliesh surveys the artefacts of the murder room and, upon being reminded of the Thompson-Bywaters case, is overcome with the same gloomy resignation about the nature of man that I felt after leaving the Crime Museum:
Dalgliesh was silent. Ever since, as an eleven-year-old, he had read of that distraught and drugged woman being half-dragged to her execution, the case had lain at the back of memory, heavy as a coiled snake. Poor dull Percy Thompson had not deserved to die, but did anyone deserve what his widow had suffered during those last days in the condemned cell when she finally realised that there was a real world outside even more dangerous than her fantasies and that there were men in it who, on a precise day at a precise hour, would take her out and judicially break her neck? Even as a boy the case had confirmed him as an abolitionist; had it, he wondered, exerted a subtler and more persuasive influence, the conviction, never spoken but increasingly rooted in his comprehension, that strong passions had to be subject to the will, that a completely self-absorbed love could be dangerous and the price too high to pay? Wasn’t that what he had been taught as a young recruit to the CID by the older experienced sergeant now long retired? ‘All the motives for murder are covered by four Ls: Love, Lust, Lucre and Loathing. They’ll tell you, laddie, that the most dangerous is loathing. Don’t you believe it. The most dangerous is love.’
Fans of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction will recognise the Thompson-Bywaters case as the inspiration for A Pin to See the Peepshow (1934), and any fan of crime fiction will witness in this exhibition real-life cases that are more disturbing than anything that can be rendered in fiction.
If you’re planning to visit the Crime Museum you must hurry. The exhibition closes on April 1o.