Going in for the kill

Today I visited the Museum of Crime in Vienna, a wonderfully old-school museum. No interactivity here, or apologies to the squeamish. Tracing the history of criminal policing in Vienna since the early modern period, there are displays on numerous celebrated crimes for each period.

These are illustrated by (for the earlier periods), woodcuts, then newspaper illustrations (themselves entertaining, showing people being variously shot, stabbed, or thrown out of carriages in the best traditions of the sensational press).

But they also have various artifacts from some of the crimes. These include a mummified head, the skull of a multiple murderer which was said to demonstrate "abnormalities", plus fragments of clothing, murder weapons, and a guillotine. There are death masks, life masks, and wax models made of victims' chests showing stab or bullet wounds. There are even the skulls of two small children who were murdered by their father.

They have a photocopied leaflet giving some information (to call it a guide would be generous) - but the displays themselves are abundantly textual, albeit all auf Deutsch. Their English leaflet is itself an adventure in linguistic crime, which includes the sentence "Lively bloodcurdling ballads were distributed in ancient Vienna until the end of public executions in 1868, bringing a farewell to the idyll of the Biedermeier period". I've always found public hangings idyllic, haven't you?

What the museum does remind us are the graphic ways crime was reported in the past. Today, even as we hunger for more crime-focused stories (look at CSI, and murder mystery novels, many today with levels of gruesome detail that would have given Agatha Christie the vapours), the reporting of actual crime is ever more sanitised. At least in Western countries, we don't normally see photos of corpses or crime scenes in the paper.

One of the museum's displays relates to a crime in 1685, when the dismembered body of a woman was found (piece by piece, over successive days), and it was put back together and put on public display in the hopes that someone would identify the woman. Nobody did, however the tactic of displaying the bodies of unknown victims seems to have continued (we see both photos and newspaper illustrations of looky-loos lining up to gawp at the corpse).

The idea of putting a corpse on public display to aid identification seems unpalatable now, Even the Doe Network, dedicated to helping identify unknown (or "John Doe") victims, has identikit sketches of the deceased; not photos.

The museum also shows the evolution of police uniforms, and its displays cover celebrated crimes up til the 1980s. Towards the end, there is more about the development of forensics which is also interesting. The pictures here show a criminal's skull and a display relating to a couterfeiting case.

If you're in Vienna, and willing to look at this kind of thing, worth a visit. If you're of a gentle disposition, skip it and go to the art museum.

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