Legal history and museums: some notes

On my blog I have written about many subjects concerning legal history. Sometimes I have even tried to connect subjects from unexpected angles to it. Buildings and landscapes, archives and libraries have featured here. However, museums have only rarely figured here. A number of museums worldwide is devoted to aspects of legal history. Lately I wondered why I had not already created a list or an overview of them on my website. This week I put the first version of a list of a number of museums in this field online. When preparing it soon a number of problems and hiccups occurred that made me hesitate to complete it. These problems and aspects are well worth discussing here. Even a simple list of museums concerning aspects of legal history is not as easily created as it might seem.

Finding list or full inventory?

How can one assemble a list of museums concerning legal history? Can you find somewhere already lists or overviews of them? At first it seemed that the snowball method, just tracking them down by chance and working from incomplete lists, would not work at all. Last year I noticed the website of the Museo di Antropologia Criminale “Cesare Lombroso” of the University of Turin. This website provided me with only eight links to comparable institutions worldwide. Assuming the Netherlands have only four museums in this field did not push me to make any list at all. Another fact that slowed down my activity was the rather simple design and lack of content of some websites. I will come back to that later in this post.

When I looked again at one of these folder-only websites I decided to have a good look at Wikipedia. The classic encyclopedias do not excel themselves in all kind of lists, but the contributors to Wikipedia have often shown great enthusiasm for them, and they use all kind of tagging, which might help to find museums. This choice was rewarded when I tried to make a list for relevant museums in Germany. The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Polizeigeschichte (German Society for Police History) has created a substantial overview of police museums worldwide. The German museum for the history of taxes led me to the website of the federation of customs museums which features museums in eighteen countries. The English Wikipedia has a list with museums in former prisons and jails, certainly not complete, but it did convince me to proceed with my own list. It made me face some hard questions: is it sensible at all to include all prison and jail museums? Which criteria should one use for inclusion? Should one order museums by country? Would a commented list serve any purpose, or is it wiser to create a separate database for all kind of legal history museums?

How to find museums on any subject, in any region, country or continent? Some international committees of the International Council for Museums have created databases for a particular kind of museum. At the Humboldt Universität Berlin you can check the database of the ICOM committee for university museums and collections (UMAC). It brings you to fifteen collections and museums in the field of forensic medicine. The database includes also eleven detention rooms. This category features mainly historic university prisons in Germany where students were detained after misbehavior and conviction by the rector or university court. The ICOM has a committee for the memorials in remembrance of the victims of public crimes, IC MEMO, but as for now no overview is given of actual museums and memorials.

So far it seems that for a number of museums dealing with specific subjects you can find a large number of them in the lists indicated here above. However, these lists, and even the database of university museums, do not include everything you would expect. Among the criminology museums of universities for example you would expect the Musée Testut-Latarjet de Médecine et d’Anatomie of the Université Lyon-I, because it has a department for médecine légale et anthropologie criminelle, yet it is only listed at UMAC with the museums for the history of medicine and anatomy. No doubt such omissions will always occur. Some of the links in the UMAC database have changed, and I have reluctantly decided to present also the museums without a functioning website. The departments for forensic medicine at Vienna and Berlin do hardly acknowledge the existence of a historical collection, but at least the Institut für Rechtsmedizin of the Charité hospital in Berlin provides a webpage on the history and form of this discipline in Berlin. Anyway, for now UMAC gives only for a few institutions working links, and it is rather painful to create a separate list of museums for forensic medicine. It is only fair to add that a number of these collection are only open to students and staff.

Among all these museums it is rare to find an online catalogue of objects or an online catalogue to the library of an institution. Until now I have only spotted an online catalogue at the website of the Dutch National Police Museum in Apeldoorn. A selected number of museums shows virtual exhibitions. The Virtual Museum and Archive of the History of Financial Regulation, maintained by the Securities Exchange Commission Historical Society, exists only in virtual space. This situation seems to confirm that presenting and viewing objects in person or even at the actual historical spot, a prison or a court, is the major goal of legal history museums.

I stated a number of questions which face you when you are going to create an overview of museums in a specific category, but I do not have quick answers for each question. Including all and sundry can result in an ugly list without much added value. Announcing the completeness of a list can create the false impression that indeed everything has been included, which is very difficult to achieve. With comments at each museum you give additional and hopefully useful information. The experience with the UMAC database teaches it is indeed wise to add several tags or categories to an institution. When you are dealing with a large number of records with a great variety of information it is certainly wise to create sooner or later a database. The example of A Compendium of Digital Collections, a blog of the library at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, shows that a blog with an ordinary content management system can now fulfill a number of the functions of a database.

How to find more relevant museums? Any art history department will bring you to lists of art museums, but here further searching is needed. For a number of countries national museum organisations exists. The American Association of Museums maintains on its website a list of accredited museums. This list does include for legal history the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama, the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, and the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The Old Jail Center at Albany, Texas, is a museum for modern art, with however in the Robert E. Nail Jr. Archives some legal records, and of course the historical location. No American prison or jail museum is at present listed as an accredited museum. The United States National Park Service has created the National Register of Historic Places, another gateway to museums and collections at historic locations. A search for courthouses in this database brings you a substantial number of locations. These examples should suffice to demonstrate the way a register of legal history museums can be completed using similar resources for other countries.

Learning by doing

While writing this post I involuntarily pushed the button to publish it. To me this seemed at first way too early, but on second thought I might as well stick to the description lately launched of scientific blogs as laboratories of science. On March 9, 2012 German scholars in the humanities met in Munich to debate the role of scientific blogs. A scholarly blog post allows you to look over the shoulders of a scholar to work in progress. Some ideas may be just ideas, some thoughts clearly need rethinking and rephrasing, some results are meagre or still doubtful. Sometimes you are painfully aware that you look through the eyes of just one scholar, and here, too, you will sometimes sustain this conclusion! However, science does not step into the world like the goddess Athena at her mythical birth from the head of Zeus, full-grown and armored. I can write as much as I want about my little project for an overview of legal history museums, but in the end I will need reactions from outside, my own reflections and afterthoughts to make this and other things any better.

A postscript

To give an indication of the work to be done I would like to give the example of Dutch museums for legal history: I thought only four museums existed, but I could easily add two more institutions to my list. Today I spotted even the Politiemuseum Tilburg, a private collection for the history of the Dutch police which however focuses strictly on uniforms. In the field of digital collections one can now add the collection of the Taxes and Customs Museum in Rotterdam which you can visit at the Memory of the Netherlands portal.

2 thoughts on “Legal history and museums: some notes

  1. Albrecht Cordes

    May I add three German museums to your list?

    At Wetzlar, there is a small museum focussing mainly on the history of the Imperial Chamber Court (Reichskammergericht). It is run by a private society, the Reichskammergerichtsgesellschaft and is definitely worth visiting if you are interested in Early Modern History

    At Rothenburg ob der Tauber you can find the privately run and owned Kriminalmuseum, which tries to find a balance between voyeurism and serious presentation of its artefacts and attracts a huge number of visitors

    At Karlsruhe, in the building of the Federal Court (Bundesgerichtshof), there is a “museum” without any original exhibits which tries to present the whole legal history of the world, a clear proof that a museum is well advised if it sets itself some sort of focus or limitation.


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