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Crime Museum Uncovered: The Complex Ethics and Expectations

Annette Day on the complex ethical challenges of interpreting a difficult and disturbing collection


© Museum of London

In around 1875, according to accepted wisdom, an Inspector Percy Neame of the Metropolitan Police Service in London initiated a teaching collection of items from the Prisoners’ Property Store for use in the training of new officers. From this beginning emerged the Police Museum, quickly to become popularly known as the ‘Black Museum’, and now formally called The Crime Museum. The museum has existed for 140 years, within the Metropolitan Police Service and accessible only to police officers and invited guests, usually from associated fields. The Crime Museum Uncovered exhibition at the Museum of London (9 October 2015 to 10 April 2016) put this collection on public display for the first time. The exhibition was created through a partnership drawn from three different worlds: the Museum of London, the Metropolitan Police Service, and the Mayor’s Office for Policing And Crime (MOPAC). The nature of the collection meant that expectations were high – the Crime Museum has long had a presence in public consciousness – and the ethical challenges involved were complex.

Our starting point was a question to, and an expectation of, ourselves: how to create an exhibition based on this collection that was not merely a sensational showcase, but that had some greater value? Early consultation with the London Policing Ethics Panel and with Baroness Newlove, the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, helped to set the direction. In particular, Baroness Newlove emphasised the role that the exhibition could play in prompting consideration of victims and the impact of crime upon them – defining victims as everyone personally affected by a crime, so, for example, including family members. A key underpinning principle that emerged from these conversations was that the stories of people would be placed at the exhibition’s core: those of the offenders, inevitably, but also of the victims and the police officers and other professionals involved.

We also wanted to get a sense of public expectations, and so commissioned formative evaluation comprising four focus group sessions. Much useful advice was offered, including exhortations that we focus on the details of the detection rather than the crime and keep our language carefully factual rather than dramatic, and the groups concluded that unusual crimes, however dreadful, somehow feel less threatening than more ‘everyday’ crimes, because of the greater distance from our day-to-day experience. But the responses from the groups also presented some challenges. Tolerance for difficult content appeared high, perhaps unsurprisingly given the level of today’s availability of explicit information via the media and internet. And a particular challenge came into focus: whilst the primary draw of exhibitions is often ‘star exhibits’, we did not want to fetishize these objects.

Ultimately we shaped an exhibition with three sections. The first focused on the establishment and early years of the Crime Museum, including two rooms evoking the museum as it had been in the late 19th century – in a light-touch, minimal rather than heavily literal way, inspired by illustrations of the time. This enabled us to emphasise the focus of the exhibition on the Crime Museum, rather than as a broader history of crime and policing. We also prompted visitors to consider some of the ethical questions involved in putting the collection on display. The largest, central space focused on the 20th and 21st century collections, featuring 24 individual criminal cases alongside a number of thematic groups. And the concluding space presented a large film reflecting on the collection and its impact.

Selecting the objects
The exhibition featured around 600 objects, from the Crime Museum’s collection of approximately 2000 items. The Museum of London’s curatorial team initially created a long list based on a purely narrative rationale. We then employed a bespoke process to make the final decisions about the objects and criminal cases we judged most difficult. This began with a step-by-step assessment based on three questions: what is the argument for including the object or case in question; what is the argument for not including it; and what mitigations might we employ to address the arguments against? Each partner – the Museum, the Metropolitan Police and MOPAC – each completed this assessment separately, before sharing it with the other partners. We then organised a meeting involving representatives from each partner together with two members of the London Policing Ethics Panel – one of whom, Professor Leif Wenar, then Professor of Ethics at King’s College London, chaired – to debate each of these objects and cases in detail and reach a final, shared decision about their inclusion or not. The benefits of this approach were twofold. Firstly, it ensured that we made thoughtful and documented decisions about what we included, through a process that required thinking in the round and both intellectual as well as emotional consideration. Secondly, it meant that responsibility for the decisions was collective rather than the weight resting on one or two individuals. Some of the decisions about specific objects and criminal cases went against (and less far than) the indications of the focus groups, and these instances prompted particular debate, but ultimately we concluded it was our responsibility to consider all the factors and make the final choice.

In addition to making specific decisions about particular objects and criminal cases, we established a number of principles through this process. Throughout the project, we were determined to maintain the dignity of victims. We therefore decided not to include any human remains within the exhibition, nor to include any crime scene photographs depicting victims. We also chose not to include any individual case studies from the period after 1975, although the exhibition did feature more recent cases within the thematic groups of exhibits. We also agreed to contact victims (by which we meant family members) where we could, which in practice meant people with whom the Metropolitan Police Service still had contact – and it was their responsibility to make that approach, as we felt it would have been inappropriate for the Museum of London to have done so. In only one case did the family members express concern, and these objects were immediately removed from the object list.

Developing the interpretation and design
An ethical approach was as important for the interpretation and design as it was for object selection. The Crime Museum collection has been built in an ad hoc way – as indeed, arguably, is the case for all museum collections to a greater or lesser degree – with a focus on criminal cases that involved some development in detection techniques or contribution to changes in the law, particularly with respect to capital punishment. Some of the cases remain well known today, while others are now more obscure, and we made sure to have a balance between these. We also made a conscious effort to test each piece of the interpretation, through identified internal reviewers, to ensure that it made clear points that contributed to defined narrative threads running through the exhibition.

It was also important to us to reflect the victims and police officers concerned as individuals. When interviewed for the exhibition’s concluding film, Baroness Newlove expressed very powerfully, ‘When you become a victim of crime, your life falls apart, whether it’s rape, murder, anything traumatic to an individual. A victim of crime is a person. It isn’t a story, it isn’t a film, it’s not a video game that you can stop and restart. A victim of crime is for life… And if we can educate and make society understand, hopefully we’ll have a healthier society to live in’. We wanted to reflect this sentiment in the content, so we included images of victims when they were alive wherever possible, together with small biographical details – within the constraints of exhibition text – to convey a sense of them all as individuals. This resulted in a relatively text-heavy exhibition, certainly more so than is usually the case for Museum of London exhibitions, but we felt this was critical to ensuring the exhibition was more than just a rare opportunity to see these objects, but also helped visitors to understand more about the criminal cases, the individuals affected by them, and their historical significance.

This approach carried through into the design. Where we focused in detail on individual criminal cases, the structure of the exhibition gave them each a defined display space – acknowledging the ‘singularity’ of those cases rather than presenting them only as examples of a particular type of crime, to use a term from Bonnell and Simon who, in reviewing a very different exhibition, describe the value of ‘an exhibition format that promotes an engagement with experiences whose specificity does not allow them to be collapsed into each other’ (Jennifer Bonnell and Roger I Simon, ‘Difficult’ exhibitions and intimate encounters, Museum and Society, July 2007, p77).

It was also important for us to give the names of the victims equal weight to those of the offenders in the titles within the exhibition. We felt that far too often the names of offenders are publicly remembered and those of victims are not.

We were aware of the emotional impact that the exhibition might have on visitors, while recognising that, of course, this would be very individual. We therefore decided to create a space at the end of the exhibition for ‘decompression’ and reflection. We also felt it important to share and invite visitors to reflect on the ethical questions and implications of putting the collection on display, making these a visible part of the exhibition itself. We therefore commissioned a new film, featuring interviews with one of the Museum of London exhibition curators; the curator of the Crime Museum; the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales; the Assistant Commissioner at the Metropolitan Police Service with whom we worked most closely; the Deputy Mayor for Policing And Crime; the Executive Director of Imkaan, a black feminist organisation which combats violence against women and girls, who had also provided us with useful insights during the text writing phase; and the Kings College London Professor who assisted us with the object selection process. They each offered their own perspectives on what it meant to make the collection public, why they felt the objects were so powerful, and what role they felt the Crime Museum could play in the 21st century. This film was presented across four screens set against a projected background within a darkened space, intended both to create impact but also a peaceful and reflective environment in which visitors could sit, gather their thoughts and reflect on what they had seen. We also included the opportunity for visitors to share their own thoughts via digital stations, receiving more than 16,000 responses – indicating how much visitors felt moved to respond.

In its six-month run, the exhibition was visited by more than 130,000 people. Through summative evaluation and the responses received via the digital feedback stations at the end of the exhibition, it has been possible to draw some conclusions about how visitors responded to the exhibition.

We thought a lot about what it meant to put these objects on public display – objects with an earlier history, whether always intended as weapons or with more benign domestic purposes; that became tools in, and then evidence of, a crime; that were transformed again into teaching items within the Metropolitan Police; and that we were now using in yet another new way. What is clear from visitor responses is the impact they had. There is much public fascination with ‘true crime’, which can become almost fictionalised; the objects in these collections represent a brutal reality, and this seems to have had a powerful effect. One visitor, echoing many other responses, commented via the digital stations, ‘This was an incredibly sobering experience for me. I have read about many of the crimes that were highlighted in this exhibition and for me reading about crime has always been a form of entertainment. There has always been a ‘distance’, created by time and a veneer of sensationalism, so to see, with my own eyes, the tools used both to perpetuate these crimes, and the tools used to solve them, has removed that distance for me. I am both horrified and chastened to see the actual knives, the guns, the bullet holes, and the nails in the bombs. It’s real now, not just ‘stories’’.

There were clear patterns of both interest in the exhibition’s narrative threads and acknowledgement of the victims and, though to a lesser degree, of the police officers concerned. One focus group participant said, for example, ‘you did get a real sense of the human story behind it; it was not just a thing in a case with a label on it’, while another commented, ‘[before coming to the exhibition] we had this expectation of, ‘It’s going to be focused a lot on the actual criminals and the morbid side of things’, but I think I came away from it, I was surprised at how much you found out about the victims as people […] and I think I came away with a new appreciation for actually what the police do’.

Perhaps inevitably, there were both questions raised about some of the objects that were included and disappointment expressed about objects and cases perceived to be ‘missing’, particularly one case which is well known to be part of the collection of the Crime Museum but which we did not include. As a team, we were always aware that there could be no definitive answer to the question of where to draw the line – not least because responses are as individual as the people making them. But we were confident that we had developed a clear and effective framework for decision making and an approach to the exhibition that means we can feel comfortable with the choices that we made.

Some visitors directly acknowledged the sensitivity of the curation, for example one commenting via the feedback stations said: ‘This exhibition focuses on difficult, controversial histories that are so often excluded but remain crucial to display. The exhibition raised questions from the very beginning about the purpose of displaying these objects and continues to engage the visitor throughout the exhibition in a number of ways. It asks visitors to not only confront difficult material and powerful objects, but to also look into ethical issues and question why these objects might remain so powerful. The last text panel about public protests bring the exhibition full circle and reminds visitors that there is often more than one side to each story and a single object can mean something different to different groups of people. The video presentation at the end was amazing and shows the complexities and ambiguities associated with presenting controversial and challenging subject matter. This exhibition is engaging and for me, the most memorable aspect is the questions that it raises’.

This was also true for the team that created it.

Annette Day,
Head of Programmes
Museum of London

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