I came across an article in the Twitter-sphere today that made me pause a minute. Published on the site Express, run by the Daily and Sunday Express in the UK, the article talked about how the London Metropolitan Police are being recommended to open a crime museum by the Greater London Authority (from my understanding the Canadian equivalent of City Hall/the Mayor’s office) in order to generate some revenue. Apparently the Metropolitan Police have a collection, seen only by an invited few, dating back 150 years that includes gruesome and extraordinary items. At first my history senses were tingling–how cool would this exhibit be?
And then I read how some of the grotesque items include “the pot and stove used by serial killer Dennis Nilsen to boil his 15 victims’ flesh.” My excitement (and appetite) quickly left the building. A quick search reveals that Nilsen murdered 15 men in the later 70’s and early 80’s. He used his skills as a butcher to avoid detection, and is currently serving his life sentence at a maxiumum secutrity prison.
Entertaining the hypothetical, what would be the implications of displaying an artefact like this in a museum be? The exhibition of this specific material would be deeply disrespectful to Nilsen’s victims and most likely incite some public outrage. One of the other artefacts suggested for this exhibit are the letters that Jack the Ripper wrote to Scotland Yard in 1888. Contrasting with Nilsen’s pot and stove, the idea of Jack the Ripper’s letter (delivered with a human kidney) being on public display didn’t cause my appetite flee or seem disrespectful. Why?
I began to wonder whether or not it was because the letter, and the events surrounding it, are further in the past. Does being futher away in time from these events make them more appropriate for public viewing, or does it more have to do with the actual object? If the weapons used to commit Jack the Ripper’s murders were on display would viewers be repulsed? In the same vein if Nilsen had committed his murders 100 years ago would it be more acceptable to display these objects? I’m inclined to think that it would be, however it raises an interesting issue for historians and museologists. Many artefacts on display currently in museums include weapons used to commit murders, therefore regardless of the time period all weapon-related artefacts should all be examined with sensitivity out of respect for their victims. This degree of sensitivity is (hopefully) employed in museums and exhibits world-wide and would be required in the creation of a museum such as the one suggested.
Something else that struck me when thinking more about the difference between artefacts was their physical form; is the pot and stove, synonymous with domestic life, that much more repulsive because it is “out of place?” (A concept that for me owes hommage to Prof. James Opp and Prof. John Walsh.) Both objects are frequently found in a kitchen, a space I personally associate with feelings of warmth, family, and love. Does removing the pot and stove from their “natural” landscape and interjecting them into a murderous one taint them?
All food for thought…..but maybe stay away from the stove for a while.