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Black Museums of Europe

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Crime Through Time
Black Museums
An interview with Larry Wessel
Portfolio: Juliet Sugg
Smile Orange
Asylum Cinemas

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by David Kerekes

An extract from 'Crime Through Time', taken from Headpress 2.5

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Image at top: Plaster bust of a hanged man and part of his gallows from Alba, in Rome's black museum.

Image above: This isn't the Budapest black museum, but the Terror museum. It isn't discussed here, but nevertheless is one of the most impressive museums this author has seen.
Photos: David Kerekes


The black museum at the Scotland Yard headquarters in central London is no longer open to the public. It’s no longer known as the black museum, either, but the rather drab ‘crime museum’. Through the years a concerted effort to restrict public access saw visits relegated to appointment only, until the doors finally closed on the public altogether (by my calculation, October 21, 2010, the day after I was there). Its content seems to have inspired some visitors to leave with their own criminal ideas, among them a poisoner who even put his name in the guestbook, while the display of terrorist bombing equipment, along with the items required for manufacture, probably raises safety issues in the current climate. But the reason for the closure is perhaps economic. On my visit, in a party of a dozen people with nebulous ties to local policing, the two officers that acted as chaperone didn’t doubt the invitation would likely be the last; their own future was uncertain and their jobs, in view of pending government cuts, were in jeopardy.

Today, the black museum is exclusively given to the training of police officers.

It might be no coincidence the museum occupies Room 101, which is situated on the first floor of New Scotland Yard, a building whose revolving sign is as familiar the world over as 10 Downing Street and perhaps McDonald’s. Room 101 is part of a working corridor, where day to day business for the Metropolitan Police takes place. A disgruntled member of staff reminds our chaperone of this fact, and our wait thereafter takes place in relative silence. The intrusion into this functioning environment might be another reason the public are kept away.

The museum dates back to 1875, although the origins of the collection go back further, to 1869, when the police were granted authority to keep certain items of prisoners’ property for instructional purposes. It has been immortalised in film, radio, books and TV programmes. One assumes it to be physically daunting, but the most striking thing upon entering the black museum is how modest it is in size. If the museum was merely an office space, I guess four people could work in it comfortably on a daily basis. But a lot of material is loaded into it.

The curator, whose full time job is the upkeep of the museum (or at least it was), offers a preamble on police officers killed and injured in the line of duty, which is also a recurring theme through the museum. He is amiable to any questions, but otherwise the visitor is allowed to wander freely. The light is dim. There are exhibits relating to familiar and not so familiar cases, among them (as I remember them) the acid bath murderer John George Haig (represented by a victim’s red handbag), Jack the Ripper (reproductions of his letters are on display), Ruth Ellis (the last woman to be hanged in Britain; her exhibit is in a corner, near a stack of chairs), the Great Train Robbery, the Sainsbury’s bomber, the elusive Carlos the Jackal (whose epithet was coined after a video of the film Day of the Jackal was discovered at one of his hideouts).

Much of the material on display has been used as evidence in court, and is in the condition it would have been when bagged and tagged; that is to say, a sword used to chop off the hand of a police officer during a fracas still carries his blood on it. There is a bullet from the gun of John Lennon’s assassin, Mark Chapman, donated by the New York forensics department involved with the murder. There are the remnants of a nail bomb used by the IRA in its brutal attacks on Hyde Park and Regents Park in 1982, which left many dead. A peculiar case from the archives relates to a pair of human arms displayed in a battered box: The discovery of a body in a forest in Germany drew similarities to a murder under investigation in Britain. Following Scotland Yard’s request for fingerprints from the body in Germany, the German police dispatched by regular mail the arms of their victim in their entirety. “True German efficiency,” the museum curator notes with not a hint of sarcasm.

Another display is the crooked samurai sword wielded during a psychotic domestic incident, the tip of its blade bent by the spine of a spouse upon impact. There is a bag in which a child was wrapped by its family for the purpose of drowning. The child is gone, but the bag remains, along with a record of injuries and the family Bible.

I’m by no means a squeamish fellow, nor do I have a overly moribund view on life, but there is a jarring truth in the filthy frying pan of a cannibal killer, its base and sides pitted and discoloured by what’s left of a victim’s brains. Perhaps it’s akin to the abyss Nietzsche warned we ought not to look into (except it’s a frying pan)? I make no apologies: I was transfixed by this particular exhibit and came back to it more than once. The killer, guided by mental delusions and voodoo, cooked and ate his neighbour. His foul legacy, this frying pan, conjures the whole squalid story with a precision that no amount of news coverage could ever manage.

Opposite this exhibit, and not dissimilar in some respects, we have a display of items removed from the home of Dennis Nilsen at the time of his arrest. These include a bath tub, a stove, and upon the stove a cooking pot in which Nilsen boiled the flesh off his victims’ heads. From beneath the lid of the pot hangs a tuft of fake hair. This is an uncharacteristically dramatic addendum for this otherwise sober museum, but one that is altogether excusable given the position Nilsen holds in the echelons of British crime. Disconcertingly, the front of Nilsen’s stove has children’s stickers on it, small ones of a type that feature a cartoon strawberry. The bath tub I will say is rather squat. I never imagine Dennis Nilsen to be a short man and it is unlikely he could have bathed in it without his knees up.

The museum curator divides the homicidal criminal into two distinct types: The bad and the mad. Nilsen was bad, he says; the cannibal killer mad.
Image black museum italy
Criminal types. Italy.


Most large cities have a police museum, but these tend to be a very different type of exhibit to the one at Scotland Yard. The Greater Manchester police museum, on Newton Street, not far from Piccadilly train station, is open to the public and is a public orientated attraction. There are no gruesome artefacts from what I remember of it, with little emphasis placed on key crimes and more on the general history of policing.

In lieu of Scotland Yard, one must travel further afield for a police black museum. Explorations into the subject have taken me recently to police museums in the capital cities of Italy and Hungary, but undoubtedly there are many others.

The black museum in Rome is situated in what used to be a prison on Via del Gonfalone, a side street adjacent to the river Tiber. Today it houses offices for Rome’s police departments, and activity from these is evident when walking through the three floors of the museum itself. Some of the exhibits have labels in English, some don’t, and all are divided into basic categories, such as weapons (a homemade assassin’s rifle with a barrel six-feet long), investigative techniques, counterfeiting (knock-off trainers and a couple of Dalìs), homicide (to avoid the gypsy prediction that all her children would die, Leonarda Cianciulli became the Sweeney Todd of Reggio Emilia, sacrificing four people and baking them in pies) and punishment. The latter section is one of the largest in the museum, but its content, which includes a spiked collar, a gossip’s bridle and an iron maiden, seem not so much in keeping with the prevention of crime than they are the instruments of torture through the ages.

Entrance to the museum is a modest two Euros, but children, like OAPS, go free. This is the type of family attraction that deserves to be encouraged — good old blood and guts and retribution! — and it’s refreshing that our law enforcement neighbours on the continent have no truck in mollycoddling their youth with sanitised displays and hands-on activities, as might be found in Manchester’s crime museum and indeed museums generally across Britain.


Even less of a concession towards children is made on the next leg of our journey, at the police museum in Budapest. Only one, in fact, courtesy of the jovial officer in charge, a round man with whiskers: On this visit, he dressed my ten year old nephew in a police flak jacket and a historical looking helmet from a cabinet, then provided him with a truncheon to beat up his dad.

The museum is located on Mosonyi Utca, which is a broad, grey street that belies its communist heritage, set between Keleti train station and the vast Kerepesi cemetery. On the corner of Mosonyi Utca is a store selling survivalist equipment, its window display consisting of big knives and pepper sprays, which is somewhat brazen given the close proximity to a museum of crime but perhaps a necessity if the flakes of the surrounding area are anything to go by. At the door of the museum there is a life-size model sentry standing to attention; within it is another life-size model, this one dressed as a civilian in a crime scene reconstruction. The tableau resembles a suburban living room, with a body dead on the carpet at its centre, surrounded by a line of chalk. Other chalk circles indicate areas of interest to the forensic investigator, such as a bullet hole and signs of a struggle. The tableau is clearly some years old, the fashion and décor reminiscent of the 1960s, but might actually be the 1970s under communist rule. Everything in the museum is some years old, nothing is documented of contemporary crime, and one could easily leave believing that the last of it in Hungary is immortalised in the domestic disturbance above.

Of the two rooms in the museum, the first is given to uniforms and police history; the other is the larger room and concentrates on criminal activity and its detection. This room has an unusual progression to it. It commences with the crime scene reconstruction above, and then moves through murder and suicides, offering examples of specific cases through murder weapons and crime scene photos. These black and white images are not compromising, nor do they have a warning before them. I volunteered that my nephew might not want to be looking at this sort of stuff, but he was his own good custodian in such matters and readily averted his eyes from the gruesome scenes depicted. There was no such liberal attitude from dad with the section that followed, however, as it dealt with child murder and child abuse, and my nephew was quickly diverted to other exhibits in the museum.

None of the labels in the museum are in English, so the specifics of a case are not going to be clear without a good command of the Hungarian language. Then again, little imagination is required to decipher the photographs depicting abused and dead infants. The case of a seemingly kindly female neighbour who molested and murdered a child in the same apartment block, is illustrated by the child’s tattered clothing under glass, and police photographs in which the woman demonstrates with the aid of a doll what she did and how she did it. The age of the photographs don’t help distance them. They’re bleak and ugly, the apartment depicted is bleak and ugly, and the perpetrator of the crime is old and ugly.

This small enclave of the Budapest police museum is undoubtedly the single most brutal public display one is ever likely to encounter in a museum of any kind. If the reader decides now I should redress my comments about family attractions and hands-on activities, I won’t. This element of the museum is a throwback to sterner times that very likely will not be allowed to survive much longer. And if one continues to follow the designated path through the museum, it leads after this not to greater atrocities but exhibits devoted to shoplifting and espionage. I like this sense of priority, an artefact in itself.

The full version of this article is available in Headpress 2.5 and can be read free here»

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Crime Through Time
Black Museums
Larry Wessel
Portfolio: Juliet Sugg
The Bowl
Smile Orange
Asylum Cinemas

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BUY the collector edition   

david kerekes  , headzine  , scotland yard  , museum  , dennis nilsen  ,
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