Socialist Worker

Exhibition: The Met Collection

Issue No. 2159

Police: always there to help

Police: always there to help

The police are not generally known for having a sense of humour but the opening of this exhibition has been done with expert comic timing.

Following the killing of Ian Tomlinson, an expenses scandal involving senior officers, and the tasering of an unarmed man in Nottingham, rarely have the police been held in as low a regard as they are today.

In fact, there have been so many police crimes that perhaps there are enough to fill some sort of heritage centre.

Readers of Socialist Worker will be surprised to know that these is not a major theme in the Met Collection.

Opening a week ago, it is designed to be a history of the police from the early days of the Watchmen – an amateur group of vigilantes – until today.

So before even looking at any of the vast array of very exciting badges, hats and police teddy bears (seriously), I knew I wasn’t going to get an accurate representation.

It was, however, heartening to see the police’s commitment to equality.

One of the information boards helpfully explains that women were not allowed to join the force until 1923. I expected there to be a footnote saying, “Watch out, they’ll be asking for the vote next!”

Similarly, it was encouraging to see the police portrayed as supportive of political dissent.

In a section detailing their evolution from gang of do-gooders to an armed body of men there is a line which reads, “...some were, however, concerned that a state police force would limit protest and political dissent”.

Good to know that worry can be easily dismissed as my pen hovers over the dotted line on the recruitment application form.

In many ways what is not on display is more telling than what is.

I asked one of the curators about the thinking behind the centre. He told me it was partly educational, partly about recruitment, and partly about putting the police in a good light.

However, further enquiries revealed their quest for “good light” might still have some way to go.

On poking my nose into an un‑staffed office I noticed a personal bookshelf containing The Big Encyclopedia Of Executions.

This collection contains little about the police’s fight against crime – which you’d think they would be at pains to stress. All of which leaves me wondering, what all the truncheons, swords and whips on display were used for?

The reviewer’s identity has been withheld as they are currently on a Community Payback scheme

The Met Collection
Empress State Building, near Earl’s Court, London. Free

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Article information

Tue 7 Jul 2009, 18:50 BST
Issue No. 2159
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