I have not been to Museum of London Docklands for a while, so I was delighted to get the chance to visit their new exhibition entitled Executions which explores the phenomenon of public execution in London’s history from 1196 to 1868.
London was the location of many high profile public executions, Smithfield, Southwark, Banqueting House, Newgate Prison, Tower Hill and Tyburn were just some of the main sites.
The exhibition reveals the social, cultural and economic impact of public executions over 700 years through a range of objects, paintings and projections.
The exhibition begins by looking at some of the methods of execution like burning, boiling, beheading, hanging and Hanging, Drawing and Quartering.
Public executions were often a spectacle to deter crime and rebellion and demonstrate the power of the crown, church and state. One of the highlights of the exhibition is a projection recreation of the Tyburn gallows.
As the centuries past, more and more crimes were punishable by death, at the end of the 18th century over 200 crimes could lead to a death sentence. Many of the executions attracted large crowds and the exhibition explores the spectacle and rituals of execution days.
Some of the condemned played up to the crowd especially the ‘celebrity criminals’ like Jack Sheppard.
The exhibition features a section on gibbeting which was usually reserved for pirates, the bodies would be left in a metal cage along the river as a warning not to be tempted to follow that ‘profession’.
Many of the executions of pirates took place at Wapping’s Execution Dock and gibbets were located around the Isle of Dogs.
In the exhibition’s final section is a series of objects that chart the end of public executions, Victorian ideas of civilised behaviour led to the decline of public executions. Executions did not go away but were moved behind closed doors.
This interesting and informative exhibition explores some of the darker aspects of London history. Although we like to think we have become more ‘civilised’ many of the issues over this period still remain. Crime and punishment are still topics of debate and ‘celebrity criminals’ still exist.
The exhibition makes full use of the unique building that houses the Museum of London Docklands. Many of the exhibitions at the Museum of London Docklands are usually free but there is a charge for this particular exhibition.