Exhibition review: Crime and Punishment at Leeds’s Abbey House Museum

By February 11, 2016

Art & Photography. Leeds.


At first glance, visiting Abbey House’s latest exhibition may seem like a morbid prospect. The history of Britain’s legal system is complex and disturbing, but Abbey House presents this in a way that is both tasteful and honest. The British legal system is tracked from its roots as a brutal enforcer of punishment, to a model of protection and reform.

Cases full of batons, restraints and other gruesome artefacts make the exhibition uncomfortable at times, but the exhibition strikes a balance by showing the human stories behind these objects. Most fascinating were the true stories of how penalties for different crimes changed as the legal system developed. For instance, a young boy caught poaching could face hanging in the early 1800s, flogging in the 1860s, and a short stint in prison in the early 20th century. All of these serve as a stark reminder that our modern legal system has grown from a history of cruelty and terror.


The exhibition also showed that the human fascination with crime is not a new phenomenon. The morbid media interest in the criminal underworld predated modern crime novels and TV serials by hundreds of years. Ballads about the laments of condemned men and advertisements for Assize trials gave an insight into the very public nature of the legal system. Trials were public spectacles, and printed pamphlets retold horrific stories in great detail. To be reminded of this is shocking, but makes us aware of how 21st century media still sensationalises terrible crimes.The exhibition ends with an array of grisly automaton machines, depicting executions and criminal trials. Such spectacles were once a common attraction at fairs and coastal resorts, also giving a moral message to the public.


Crime and Punishment at Abbey House presents the story of Leeds through a constantly changing legal system. It presents an honest depiction of social history which is appropriate for a family audience, as well as more mature visitors. Coupled with the museum’s reconstructed Victorian streets, Abbey House creates an immersive experience.

The Crime and Punishment exhibition at Abbey House continues until December 31st 2016. For more info visit the Abbey House website.