Morbid fascination

Exploring or exploiting? We take a look in Britain's only true crime museum

4th June 2019

Our collective obsession with true crime has attracted plenty of scrutiny recently, as evidenced by the stream of think-pieces questioning whether having High School Musical heartthrob Zac Efron play serial killer Ted Bundy was a step too far.

But even if the film drew criticism from some quarters, there’s a sense that no matter how exploitative the true crime genre becomes, people will still enthusiastically lap up whatever is placed in front of them. Crime remains the most popular book genre, a Netflix series about Bundy’s crimes is the streaming platform’s most successful documentary launch ever and there isn’t a week that goes by without a new podcast about an infamous murder. The next series of the Slow Burn podcast, for example, will focus on the murders of rappers Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. — the true crime express shows no signs of slowing down.

Armed with this knowledge, I visited Hasting’s The True Crime Museum, which claims to be the UK’s first museum purely dedicated to true crime. Open now for five years, the museum has been an unexpected success story in a dusty seaside town where, it’s fair to say, not a lot really happens. But even if owner Joel Griggs has successfully tapped into the popularity of true crime, it’s hard as a paying visitor (FYI: admission costs £8.50) to know how to feel, and where to draw the line between historically significant and morally bankrupt.

Set in dark, damp atmospheric caves on the seafront, the voices of killers graphically detail their murders (played on a loop, from a nearby mini film theatre, no less) as soon as I walk in the front door. A teenager looks blankly at the ceiling, focusing so he can hear Fred West talk about decapitating his daughter.

Do we really need to see handwritten cartoon drawings from Richard ‘the Night Stalker’ Ramirez?

The museum’s layout is haphazard, moving between silly recreation props and disturbing real artefacts at a bizarre pace. The jarring contrast between cabinets filled with bank robbers’ masks (including a surreal af Wayne Rooney mask) and the actual wooden barrels which 1940s serial killer John Haigh used to store and dissolve the bodies of his victims in acid, leaves you unsure whether this is supposed to be a harmless fun-fair ghost ride or something far more sinister.

One of the most disturbing areas features a hangman’s noose, which was used to kill several criminals in the 1960s, and the skull of French rapist and murderer Louis Lefevre, who was executed by guillotine in 1916. “The bastard got what he deserved!” mutters a woman I had earlier watched take a selfie sitting in a replica electric chair.

But even though they’re chilling to look at, the museum’s instruments of execution — which also include a padlocked bed where prisoners were given a lethal injection — do at least feel historically significant. Here we get a genuine insight into institutional murder, which forces us to confront the reality behind state execution. It’s just a shame these flourishes of insight are let down by so many tacky exhibits that take more pride in recycling grisly details than attempting to say anything thought-provoking about the society in which these killers existed.

When a museum takes greater pride in indulging in the lurid than actually attempting to teach you something new about what might lead human beings to kill, its goals become flawed

Do we really need to see handwritten cartoon drawings from Richard “the Night Stalker” Ramirez? What can we gain from seeing the bathtub contract killer John Childs dismembered four bodies in? And is an interactive game that shows mugshots of famous criminals (including Z-list TV presenter and domestic abuser Justin Lee-Collins) really necessary?

By just showing props that played a part in a murder and not giving the proper context behind the triggers of the crime itself, the museum does a disservice to the victims, who become silenced and reduced to mere statistics. The lurid details of how they were killed seem to mean more than exploring what their deaths meant or what kind of people they were. Then again, a museum looking at victims of these crimes wouldn’t sell tickets quite like one with marketing that includes shots of Jeffrey Dahmer and the Kray twins. That’s something I’m sure the owner, who was unavailable to offer comment, is acutely aware of.

The existence of The True Crime Museum is the result of insatiable demand. Its success and plans for expansion (the site is going to get bigger soon, I’m told by one member of staff) is sure to inspire similar tourist sites across the country. But when a museum takes greater pride in indulging in the lurid than actually attempting to teach you something new about what might lead human beings to kill, its goals become flawed. Have we become more interested in exploring details than triggers? In the technique, not the tragedy?

The True Crime Museum suggests so. As I left, processing the various murder weapons I had just seen, I couldn’t shake the uncomfortable feeling that by putting this kind of paraphernalia on display the killers have somehow won, their crimes immortalised and put on a pedestal. It’s an odd commercialisation of savagery, but one that doesn’t appear too out of place in 2019 and a culture where serial killers are glorified like cult rockstars.

As I leave, the elderly woman who had been admiring Lefevere’s skull earlier excitedly says to her friend: “It was worth every penny!”

4th June 2019