The Black Museum

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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