The Black Museum

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The Black Museum is a macabre collection of artifacts from London's criminal history. It's currently closed to the public, but now Boris Johnson is talking about opening it up. We wangled ourselves a rare tour - and thought you might like to know what horrors lurks within...

  • The Black Museum

    Tools of the criminals' trade

  • The Curator pulls open a drawer full of shotguns. Which of these are real and which are replicas, he wants to know. I peer inside.
    ‘Too late,’ he says. ‘You’re dead.’

    Welcome to the Black Museum, the Met Police’s private memorial to some of London’s bleakest moments. The public isn’t allowed inside, and after a half-hour tour, I wish I hadn’t been either.

    The Black Museum (renamed the Crime Museum after complaints from officers in areas with large ethnic minority populations) has been one of the world’s most macabre and inaccessible museums for well over a century, acquiring a certain infamy among hardcore Londonphiles and the sort of people who spend their spare time reading ‘The World’s Greatest Serial Killers’. The museum is closed to the public but, after repeated requests, The Curator has allowed Time Out inside, albeit under duress that he makes no attempt to disguise. From his office in Scotland Yard’s Room 101 (and who says the police have no sense of humour?), where the walls are covered in police badges from forces around the world and shelves stuffed with books such as, er, ‘The World’s Greatest Serial Killers’, The Curator – two parts John Thaw to one part librarian – lays down the law. He doesn’t want to be named, photographed or quoted, and if the piece results in too many people phoning him up to try to get access to the museum, well, he’ll hold me responsible.

    Ground rules firmly established, The Curator unlocks the door, and the tour begins. The Crime Museum has been at Scotland Yard since 1874, opening in the Met’s first home off Whitehall, before moving with the Yard to Victoria Embankment in 1890 and then Victoria Street in 1967. It was set up by Inspector Neame after an 1869 law allowed the police to retain prisoners’ property for ‘instructional purposes’. Neame felt it was important that new police officers could see the tools of the criminals’ trade – a function the museum still fulfils today – and gradually built up the museum’s stock. In 1877, a reporter from the Observer was refused entry and wrote about Scotland Yard’s ‘black museum’. The name stuck, and the museum earned a spot on the tourist trail for Victorian celebs: various heads of state, Gilbert and Sullivan, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Harry Houdini and Laurel and Hardy all had a ghoulish gander.The room we enter has been mocked up to resemble the original Whitehall museum, with a false fireplace and sash window. Setting the tone, the first thing you see is a noose, followed by a large desk creaking under the weight of a tablecloth of gleaming weaponry, and a chest of drawers topped with a glass case containing shiny submachine guns. A doorless opening leads from here into the museum proper.

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    Shackles, gallows and nooses

    We start at the gun drawer. As well as the rifles and replicas, it’s full of walking sticks, umbrellas, flick knives and other random bits of metal. The Curator asks me to guess which are guns, pauses for a heartbeat, before stabbing with his finger: shotgun, shotgun, pistol, shotgun, pistol. The walking stick and umbrella are guns. Even the flick knife is a gun. All have been used on London streets. He demonstrates how quickly and easily they convert, where the barrels and triggers are, and shuts the drawer. The Curator is enjoying himself now, less begrudging by the minute. He picks up a sword and hands it to me. As I reach for it, he pulls off the hilt, which is a short, detachable blade, and makes to gut me with it. The Curator explains: a man attacked some people in a pub with the sword, pretended to hand it over when the police arrived, only to whip out the stabbing blade as the officer exposed his body. It’s called the Cop Killer. And, just like that, any lingering sense of fun wafts out the window.

    The point, The Curator explains, is to show newly graduated coppers the dangers they face from disguised weapons (the walking-stick gun et al were perfectly legal until 1959). This corresponds with the museum’s function as part of the Met’s Crime Academy, established in 2003 after a merger between the Detective Training School, the Forensic Scientific Support College and the Analyst Training Unit. With everything that comes into the museum, The Curator emphasises, there’s a lesson to be learnt, and senior officers come here to receive regular briefings and lectures on contemporary cases that have historical parallels. Passionate about the museum’s purpose and happiest when discussing the history of crime, The Curator mentions a recent case that was solved with DNA taken from a discarded match, and its similarities to a 1927 murder solved by blood taken from a match found inside a wicker wastepaper basket now exhibited at the museum. It’s the same evidence, interpreted differently, he says.

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    The chamber of horrors

    This 1920s match and wastepaper basket are in the second part of the museum, a large room with the fusty atmosphere of a regional museum and display cases that mark out a mazy circuit of London’s criminal history. We pass the first two displays, one on the first murder solved by fingerprinting and the other on serial killer Dennis Nilsen, who boiled the flesh of his victims and poured it down his drains. I look at the Nilsen display. It’s an old white cooker topped by a battered aluminium cooking pot. I feel sick.

    The rest of the tour passes in a blur. There’s a display about Met officers killed in the line of duty; a protective apron used by John Haigh, the Acid Bath Murderer; vials of poison; forensic photographs; blood-stained weapons; a crossbow used by the Krays; a ketchup bottle from the Great Train Robbery (‘I can’t talk about that,’ says The Curator cryptically); displays on Crippen, John Christie and cannibalism; explosives used by nineteenth-century Fenian terrorists; the IRA rocket launcher that was used to fire at the MI6 building in 2000, plus a fragment of the window frame that was hit by the missile; the tiny ricin-loaded pellet pulled out of Georgi Markov’s leg, where it had been inserted with an umbrella. It’s a tough tour, not because of any individual items (Nilsen’s cooking pot excepted) but through the accumulated weight of otherwise anodyne objects that collectively represent the many horrible things people have done to each other. It’s a chilling, unsettling experience that sits somewhere between the self-chosen prurience of reading a book about Fred West and the necessary horror of the Imperial War Museum’s Holocaust gallery.

    The Curator reassures me that visitors, police officers included, regularly faint during tours, but this is clearly a museum by the police, for the police. That point is underlined by one of the last displays, a huge cache of weapons taken from demonstrators at an anti-Vietnam War march in 1960s, a so-called peace march says The Curator, as well as riot shields from Brixton, melted by petrol bombs, and Broadwater Farm, complete with bulletholes. This is what you are up against, the display says. Trust nobody.

    The result is a museum that works on two levels: one is the straightforward practical side, allowing policemen to see and handle actual evidence and learn how it was used to solve cases, while the other, possibly more important, is psychological, showing the police what the people out there will do to them, and each other, given half a chance. In so doing, it validates the Met’s instinctive suspicion, as embodied by The Curator, that a warehouse full of police-related paraphernalia deserves permanent exhibition space. I leave the Crime Museum in a sober mood, sure of only one thing: having tried so hard to get inside, I’m in no hurry to return.

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39 comments
Jill Isaac
Jill Isaac

I feel like i had just peeked into a forbidden world reading this article. Being somewhat of a Londonphile who really do enjoy reading about serial killers in my free time, the first time i've heard of the Black Museum, i wished there will come a day where i can visit it. However, now that there is a possibility that it will be open to public, i feel torn. As you had written, the museum serves as a significant place for the Mets police and not something that the public can appreciate fully. I'd hate to think of children/stupid adults running around trying to touch everything and sullying this amazing collection that has been acquired through all these years.

Roger Page
Roger Page

I remember my late father showing me exhibits in a museum, of the pushchair of a child murderess who took £50 for peoples unwanted babies and subsequently drowned them in river.Also the knotted kerchief used in a strangulation. I cannot be certain of the museum as it would have been about 60 years ago. Can anyone throw any light on this?

Ian gibson
Ian gibson

Taking my fiance to My home city London from hers; Doncaster. And I know allowing her to view this museum would be a highlight as she took a forensic degree 3yrs ago and passed with honors at 34yrs. Please let me know how this is possible. Many thanks

Doreen Dunning
Doreen Dunning

As secretary of Littlehampton WI I am at present trying to arrange a visit to London, would you consider allowing a very law abiding ladies a tour of your museum.

peter mancini
peter mancini

9th June 2013 would like to visit the museum with my friend and two youngsters during their school holidays. the youngest ia aged 12. yours sincerely peter mancini

Eddie Johnson
Eddie Johnson

Let’s all be honest! Gory Victorian murders are guaranteed hits when it comes to the books and films. It is a time when even the best detectives failed to find the criminals, a time when those caught were looking at being hung and before 1860 in public. The chance to see, smell and touch the very tools used to perform such horrifying offences is what temps us all. The adrenaline rush as you cast your sight on a rope or razor that was used to snuff out a human life once taken and you are addicted. Even if the public were allowed, for many the search wouldn’t stop. Old court houses where wretches were sentenced to death, reconstructed execution cells and nooses would be hunted a down at all costs. The dark and murderous side of humanity is a magnet like moths to a flame. Many of us are disgusted by the acts of violence and suffering, yet we can’t help but seek out and get our fix of the macabre. Perhaps secretly some of us even wish the Victorian punishments were still available lost in the belief that crime and punishment has fallen by the wayside of justice.

Mick Norman
Mick Norman

Is Boris still talking? Action, not words (to revive an old slogan) please Boris.

Neil Paterson
Neil Paterson

I woupld love to visit this museum next year in August can you please advise re the process Currently a serving police officer with South Australia Police thanking you Neil Paterson

steve mayhall
steve mayhall

my wife & i saw a documentary of this museum on New Zealand tv many years ago. One attraction that encouraged us to visit this country, but alas it was not advertised that it isn't open to the public. After now living in the UK for many years & having seen much history & fascinating things, this would be a crowd puller & tourist attraction that could generate a lot of interest & money. come on Borris

Mr Graham TOMPSETT
Mr Graham TOMPSETT

I am a retired Police Officer residing at 7 Rosalee Close, Coffs Harbour, NSW Australia. 2450. I was born in Thorpe Bay Essex in 1946. I migrated to Australia with my family in 1954 and have never been back to England. I served 38 years with the NSW Police Force. My wife and I hope to travel to England about April, 2013, We would like very much to visit the Black Museum if it is possible. If so could you please advise, cost and times etc, Thank you. Graham Tompsett

paul
paul

Would Graham be so keen to keep it private if he were one of the many who could not be privilaged to veiw this publicly owned asset , or would he without something to crow about be joining the rest of us requesting our public right ??

Graham Andrews
Graham Andrews

Went there today and it has to be one of the most fascinating private museums in the UK. Good old Victorian macabre collecting at its best! So glad someone had the foresight to start the collection and so glad the Met continue to support it. Regarding making it public, security would be a nightmare and the hands-on element would be lost. These are priceless historical artifacts that need to be looked after in a secure environment. Many thanks to the Met and the Museum curator for allowing us to see the collection.

nia
nia

were is this museam do you do tours for schools if you do can you tell me cause i really would like school children to come if thats avalible

Shane McNeelance
Shane McNeelance

I am, like Diane also fortunate to have visited the Black Museum as I also worked in the Met (Civil Staff) during the 80's. My recollection of the place is that it is a very fascinating place to visit and I agree that it is time it was opened to the public. I came away from it remembering the strange smell that wafted around the exhibits, to my mind a constant image of death. I would love to visit it again in my lifetime.

Lindsay Avebury
Lindsay Avebury

I visited the Black Museum around 1954-6, as part of a school visit. I must have been about 10 or 12 yrs old. I wasn't at all horrified and found it quite fascinating. One of many exhibits I remember was the partly dissolved head of one of Haigh's (the acid bath murderer) victims in a jar. The museum made a great impression on me, as a child, and gave me no nightmares. How I wish I could visit it again.

Diane Perrott
Diane Perrott

I visited the Black Museum back in the early 80's when i worked for the Met Police in London (civil staff). Although i was only in my late teens i found it so intresting and would love for it to be opened up to the public for a return visit

paul
paul

This article started out full of promise then sadly petered out like a damp squid , very disapointing . It would be great to see this museum open to the public although position and size seems to be very restrictive , perhaps now with all our technology available to us a proper virtual tour with photo`s and video`s as well as spoken and written description`s could be made available to the public and researcher`s who would love to get an insighted glimpse of this very specialised museum , after all it is by the grace of the law of the our land that it exists .

peter hughes
peter hughes

Open it to public not only gives an insight into the histoy of crime but fees gained could go into the police benevalent fund.

Martin
Martin

I'm currently researching into a Victorian murder case from the 1860s, and would be interested to see if they have anything relating to this case. That aside, I see no valid reason why the general public should not be allowed access. After all we see far worse horrors on our TV's these days!

peter hughes
peter hughes

Its about time to open the experiance up to the puplic let people see the real london history and see the things faced by not only police but also londoners through history.

Valerie & Anne
Valerie & Anne

My friend Anne and I are very interested in criminology and would be delighted if we could visit this museum. Having read many non fiction crime books, seeing the artifacts would be of particular interest. I cannot think of any reason why the museum shouldn't be opened to the public. Boris Johnson if you read this comment please can you arrange to have this museum opened to the public for those that wish to visit it.

derrick murray
derrick murray

boris time to open up the museum purely for educational purposes and for people interrested in criminology. do the right thing and let us learn a bout londons criminal past.

Andrew Carr
Andrew Carr

Not only should this museum be made open to the public, it should be made mandatory to all school children. With the glorification of violence In todays society and the ever increasing fascination with serial killings, extreme violence and torture, it may do children good to see the real horror of such crimes and its ramifications. Kids should be exposed to the reality of crime and not just taught to think murder and violence is cool. We are too often fed romanticised notions of murderers and bank robbers, without taking into consideration the effect dark crime has on those affected by it.

paul scott
paul scott

I was (Fortunate?) to be a civil service employee with the Metropolitan Police at Scotland Yard. Even though I worked there and the museum was next door to my department, I still had to apply for 'employees' tickets'. However, it was well worth it. It's actually very small, like, probably the size on one floor of a medium sized house, but a lot packed in. Of particular interest, for me was Christie. They had the bones of one of his victims, buried in his garden, with a root growing through it AND the macabre tobacco tin of pubic hairs. Also, there was an exhibit, somewhat bizarre of the Krays - a briefcase that had syringes that shot out of it!! It really is an amazing museum and although I understood at 'the yard', it maybe shouldn't have been accessed for security reasons, just re-locating it somewhere for the public would be fantastic. Whether they charge, as it may be see to credit crime is another matter - though of course if the proceeds went to the Police Benevolent Fund or a victims' charity, it would serve its purpose well. Come on Boris!!!

Laura Emery
Laura Emery

I really hope that the museum is able to be opened to the public, there are plenty of books around which people can buy about serial killers and murders so why cant we look at the museum and find out the truth. the article above is brilliant and this sort of thing can be interesting

Paul T
Paul T

I found this article fascinating, and has described the horror attached to the 'exhibits' extremely well. As well as Nielsen's cooker, I remember an article in a local Sunday paper years ago showing the cape worn by PC Keith Blakelock when he was murdered in the Groadwater Farm riots. While I commend Boris Johnson on looking to open the museum up to the public, I feel it also has to be cautious on exactly what we get to see. Some of the exhibits are far too recent, and many of the victims' family members are still alive. Perhaps it should be restricted to artefacts up to the 1950's

Andy Ross
Andy Ross

I had the privelege of visting the museum last year. As a bit of an armchair detective and amateur historian of the Whitechapel murders, the tour was an eye-opening experience. The curator's knowledge of the subject matter was well presented and incredibly knowledgeable. If this is indeed opened up to the public, I can only hope they treat the exhibits with respect.

Phil
Phil

Any items displayed would obviously need the full permission of those family members directly affected by the crime in question before going on display. I would love to see the items in this museum available to us all too, but can understand the Met's point of view. Also, I can't help but worry that somebody somewhere might make money out of this if it were to become open to the public. . Having said that, it would serve as as a very good PR tool for the Police in bringing home how brave our front line Police officers are & how much we take their bravery for granted.

bill
bill

having an interest in true crime especially londons east end, the krays etc. i would love to visit the black museum. its time the public were allowed in to view the exhibits as with any other museum. lets have it opened.. SOON

susan
susan

now this is one museum that i would love to have a look around on a visit to london. this is my history, although shocking for some. we all have choice and if it was open to the public, the public can then choose wether or not to visit.

Vickie
Vickie

Please open this up, I am dying to visit it, and would come all the way from brooklyn, NY to do so !

Joyce
Joyce

I wondered if Boris Johnson has got any nearer to opening the museum. There must be lots of people genuinely interested in seeing the exhibits from a historical point of view. I would visit.

mrs lisa tongs
mrs lisa tongs

this has always been something ive been waiting for to visit,as i read all about serial killers,id think a lot of people would pay to see this ,i know i would,and the essay was a good read,lisa.

Pauline
Pauline

Most of these crimes are already sensationalised. I understand that more modern crimes would upset family members or victims themselves. I do however think that we, the public, should be able to look upon these criminal acts and artefacts as a reminder of what our fellow humans are capable of. When did the world mean so little to them? I also think that to sort the overcrowding problems in prisons, the govt or crown should "discard " the now infamous criminals: Peter Sutcliffe, Denis Nilsson, Ian Brady etc.. they have had their fame.. Their victims didnt live, why should these monsters be allowed to, albeit in prison, which is for some like living in a hotel.. They should die like their victims did. This makes me so angry when I think about the poor victims no longer alive, and their slayers living it up. What the hell has happened to the world??????????

IAN
IAN

Having been a Curator responsible for a Police Display of Historical and current artifacts I have always wished that the general public have viewing access to these items as there is a genuine interest out there by the public regarding the Police regarding its present and its past. As Plato said 'The Police are the People and the People are the Police' For that reason the Police service consists of a gathering of various types and personalities. We do have an excellent Police Service in this country and they need the public support to perform their role and this can be furthered through greater understanding and education. This Crime Museum is somewhat different to many other Museums that exist and I can understand and appreciate the reasoning behind the Curators view that it should be somewhat restricted. It may however be considered an option to make the museum open to the public by way of application by genuine interested persons and that way entry can be properly controlled. I have visited very many Police Museums around the World including the outstanding one in New York where there is complete access by the public to many artifacts of various types, some of which are indeed very gruesome. I hope that Boris can find a means by which to allow those with a genuine interest to view this very worthy museum in a way that is acceptable to all. .

Lesley
Lesley

I went to the Black Museum in Hull. It was very interesting. My street was in 'criminal' area! I would like to see the london Black museum too. Good boy Boris!

Gary
Gary

It's rather surprising to read that the Met has a private collection of criminal weapons - with blood still on them. It's frankly disturbing to think that it used as a training tool by our police force; I wonder how many freshly recruited coppers leave convinced that everyone they meet on the streets will have a crossbow hidden in their trousers. Paranoia anyone? No wonder the police assaulted innocent people during the G20 protests (protests not "riots") - they're being told everyone's out to get them! As a museum, it's an interesting concept. But as a Met police training tool, it's not very far from being immoral.

KN1985
KN1985

Boris Johnson's notion of opening this collection of items to the public is one that deserves serious consideration. The public should be allowed the opportunity to understand the danger that policemen and women face, especially so in the current climate towards crime, politics and the G20. However, as someone who works with offenders in the community, any representation of such material would have to be highly sensitive to the victims of these crimes and their families and be careful not to sensationalise these crimes. It's all very well to squirm at the horrendous acts of serial killers but real people were murdered and hunderds of others bereaved.