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Criminological Museums and the Visualization of Evil

Susanne Regener
Traduction de Benita Blessing
p. 43-56


Des musées criminologiques, produits de la criminologie positiviste de cette époque, ont été créés à la fin du XIXe siècle. Cet article décrit cette forme muséale particulière et sa fonction: ériger des objets en trophées et constituer en quelque sorte un programme visuel de formation. Les exemples du musée de Cesare Lombroso à Turin, et du musée criminel de Hambourg permettent de comprendre ce qu’un établissement de ce type était censé conserver et comment il était perçu. Les objets étaient liés aux conceptions anthropologiques du criminel. L’article traite ainsi de la pré-histoire du «profilage» et de la représentation du criminel.

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1What purpose do criminological museums serve? The Austrian criminologist Hans Groß was the first to justify the need for them in 1894:

  • 2 Groß (1894, p. 4).

But even the study of a compendium is not sufficient, even if it were able to contain all that the criminologist needed in this area. Especially because much of the authoritative knowledge for this field (e.g., forensic medicine, microscopy, photography, chemistry) is developing so rapidly today that [the knowledge] that had only just been discovered one year ago is already completely out of date. Furthermore, much can be learned from just a little contact with real objects that could not be taught by the longest of descriptions. Finally, most of what the examining magistrate must definitely know cannot be stated in a book, because this knowledge could too easily fall into unqualified hands2.

  • 3 Groß (1894, pp 13-15) showing a total of twenty-nine categories of objects.

2Groß identified the essential functions of a criminological museum in this passage. With its visual format, the museum’s collection should complement a traditional textbook, and always be able to present the most current state of knowledge. In contrast to a written description, actual contact with objects can teach lessons more effectively. Finally, some areas of the museums should only be made accessible to a specialized public. «Visualization», «objects of learning», «more profound understanding», and «specialized knowledge» are the key terms that must inform studies of historical criminological museums. What does a museum of criminology contain? «Very disparate objects», wrote Gross, including «interesting objects of forensic medicine», «microscopic equipment», «poisons», «weapons», «blood samples», «tools for theft», «photographs of criminals», «handwriting samples of criminals», and «means of disguise»3.

3The criminological museum was a place where objects and pictures were collected that reproduced contemporary knowledge about crime and its perpetrators. The museums came into existence around the turn of the twentieth century in some large European cities, a consequence of the establishment of criminology as a science. This close relationship between scientific discourse and the practice of collecting and exhibiting is the theme of this chapter. As exhibits and as places of learning, the criminological museums symbolized not only the representation or mediation of contemporary theories of criminology, but also the specific belief in the ability of objects to express ideas.

  • 4 Schmidt (1993, p. 122).
  • 5 Nye (1984); Regener (1999).

4The museum, as part of a larger cultural archive, is a place of collection and of history. «Objects – fragments – are collected together to maintain a past (and triumphant) event in memory. The items are removed from their normal contexts and arranged in a different order»4. I wish to show what function this «trophyization» served in a historical criminological museum, how the items were used, and what sort of power for imparting knowledge the objects were accorded. The positivist theories of criminology are the context in which the objects are placed and assigned meaning5. These are projects that were informed by the framework of biopolitics, which subjugated humanity to a biological scientific view and formed the mechanisms for segregation and exclusion.


  • 6 Becker (1992, pp. 283-302).
  • 7 I would like to thank the director of the Institute for Medical Jurisprudence, Professor Mario Port (...)

5Textbooks and handbooks on criminology and police practice6 were always well illustrated at the turn of the century, and the criminological museum can be seen as a medium with comparable pedagogical functions. However, before I look further at the didactic characteristics of the criminological museum, I would like to describe the most important museum collection for the science of criminology, which was established by Cesare Lombroso and set the tone for later museums. The oldest and largest collection of visual and contemporary artifacts, it sheds light on the European discussion of deviance during the last third of the nineteenth century. This collection, still entirely complete, is housed at the Istituto di Medicina Legale,the Institute for Medical Jurisprudence, in Turin. Since 1914, it has been closed to the general public7. I thus direct the reader’s attention to a droll site of the construction of knowledge, and will name a series of those objects believed by their collectors to provide information about evil and criminality/the criminal mind.

6Upon entering the badly lit archive at the Institute for Medical Jurisprudence,one finds overflowing dark museum display cases and cupboards, an assortment of boxes, cardboard signs, glass containers, models, human bones, and books. It is a picture of mass chaos, although the following items can be discerned upon closer examination: photographs, drawings, and lithographs, depicting criminals, psychiatric patients, and prostitutes; objects and pictures that were made in prisons and psychiatric institutions by their inmates; brains and whole heads preserved in liquid; display boards, on which an assortment of photographs is arranged-portraits, or photographs of perpetrators with their tools of crime, or crime scenes; wax and plaster masks of fugitives, plaster casts of ears and hands, preserved pieces of tattooed skin; a mummy in a cupboard, and many skeletons and skulls.

  • 8 For Lombrosos’ complete biography, see Colombo (1975); Gadebusch Bondio (1995, pp. 18-36).

7Cesare Lombroso had studied medicine in the 1850s and later was a military doctor in the Italian army8. There he conducted his first anthropometic surveys of soldiers, and collected skulls and brains with the intention of demonstrating the ethnic differences among Italians from different regions. Paralleling English, French, and German positivism, Lombroso developed an evolutionary theory of physical and mental attributes of degeneration for the characterization of criminal types.

  • 9 See MAC, no. 1145, Album dei Delinquenti, vol.1 (1871).

8After he was appointed head of the psychiatric hospital in Pesaro in 1871, he began to assemble his first album of illustrations about patients and prisoners9. This Album dei delinquenti,which depicted the proximity of mental illness and crime visually and physiognomically, became one of the first display items for the subsequent museum. In a commemorative essay from 1911, Hans Kurella claimed that Lombroso evolved into a «titanic» scientist:

  • 10 Kurella (1911, p. 1).

As is clear from his bibliography, Lombroso was a philologist, philosopher, mystic, anatomist, anthropologist, neurologist, psychiatrist, sociologist, statistician, and social and political scientist. He was always original, always assembling piles of observations, everywhere paradoxical, bold in hypotheses, surprising in his ability to bring together otherwise disparate fields, and a collector of facts of the highest order. His not inconsiderable analytical capacities were completely outshone by his passion for synthesis; his titanic efforts toward inductive research were again and again crisscrossed and often paralyzed by his gifted eye for analogies10.

  • 11 Lombroso (1876). The accompanying pictorial atlas Atlante first appeared with the third edition (To (...)

9The essay praised the many sides of the empiricist, particularly his hard work in the assemblage of resources and evidence. In fact, a look in Lombroso’s archive shows that scientists and institutions all over the world supported his collecting efforts. His use and interpretation of these extensive materials can be seen in his 1876 work The Criminal Man (L’uomo delinquente)11, which employed primarily photographs from police archives, prison administrations, and psychiatric institutions, originating from many European countries.

  • 12 See Colombo (1975, p. 51). After Lombroso’s death in 1909, his student and successor Mario Carrara (...)

10The collection of visual materials was the main element of the Archivio di Psichiatria, antropologia criminale e scienze penali, the Archive for Psychiatry, Anthropology and Criminal Science, which was founded in 1880. At this time, Lombroso was a professor of legal medicine and hygiene in Turin. The collection was shown publicly for the first time in 1884 in Turin. It included not only pictures, but also casts of body parts and crafts made by the inmates of psychiatric institutions and prisons. The exhibits that accompanied the conferences on criminal anthropology (which took place regularly as of 1885) found international acclaim. In 1892, the exhibit officially became the Museum of Psychiatry and Criminologyat the University of Turin12.

  • 13 Portigliatti Barbos (1989, p. 588). See also there the illustrations from the collection.

11What remains of the Lombroso Museum is a confusing mixture of visual documents of people who had been declared outsiders. Some examples: death masks of prisoners, modeled in wax, with added eyes and hair, lying on fabric pillows. Drawings of executed brigands. Photo studies of homeless children in southern Italy, undertaken for research about inborn criminal dispositions and their physical expression. Photographs of so-called ape-people; that is, freaks who were put on show at annual markets and, according to Lombroso, showed clear signs of their original biological state. (As is known, he conducted research on the similarities between criminals and so-called wild people.) Pasteboards that show photographs of prisoners from different regions of Italy. Large format lithographs (48 X 30 cm) in wooden frames, copied from police photographs. Portrait photographs of clothed and naked bodies in psychiatric hospitals: physical similarities between psychiatric patients and criminals were being sought. Photographs of patients were displayed in a cabinet together with objects that the patients had made, as if «The criminal anthropology museum in Turin is the visible, datable evidence of that desperate search for signs, which were packed with meaning and elevated to symbols»13 there were a specific relationship between physiognomy and the handmade objects.

12In Lombroso’s collection are also drawings of tattoos and preserved pieces of skin from prisoners. This enumeration offer a glance into the variety of the museum’s collection. The objects, especially the photographs, are symbols of both a particular interpretation of the Darwinian evolutionary model and a political dimension of Lombrosian research activity. For it was the time of the national unification of Italy which provided the background for the study of social and cultural contradictions and created an interest in subcultures (the south of Italy was described as the dark continent). Lombrosos’s evolutionary model aimed to bring the different expressions of (pathological) disturbances – such as criminality, mental illness, prostitution, banditry, atavism, and homelessness – into an arrangement that enabled their analysis. The collected objects thus acquired a new, museum-specific context. In this manner, the exhibit room attempted to define metaphorically any deviance, abnormality, or other factors of disturbance that threatened the definition of a unified nation. The function of the museum was, in this context, to express symbolically the borders, stigmata, and visionary plans of the contemporary project of «making Italy».

  • 14 Pomian (1994, p. 117).

13The Lombroso Museum can be understood as part of a cultural history that increasingly focused on the nation, a phenomenon that was part of a larger European trend. More generally, a transformation in the social role of the museum in the nineteenth century occurred within «the change in the national conscience under the influence of the state, which regarded the museum as one of those institutions that contribute to fostering the integration of all parts of the country which belong to the state and all levels of society which constitute the nation»14.

  • 15 Radzinowicz (1991, pp. 31-32).
  • 16 Pick (1989, pp. 116-117).

14It was precisely to promote this idea of nationhood that was behind Lombroso’s scholarly work. He proposed a social-Darwinist solution: exclude completely and render innocuous those so-called «born criminals» who were seen as incurable15. «Here lay the efficacy of Lombroso’s social evolutionary model», wrote Daniel Pick, «it brought all those contradictory social processes together into an apparent discursive unity»16. Lombroso’s positivism looked for the blemishes on the body that signaled degeneration and abnormality. A biological concept was thus connected to a new, criminal-anthropological perspective. Lombroso’s collection presented his accumulation of artifacts as if it alone covered the whole field of knowledge about criminals under scientific study.


  • 17 Lombroso (1911). This is the rewritten version of a handwritten manuscript that I found in MAC, wri (...)

15Little documentation exists about the original exhibit. Its presentational design can be reconstructed by using some photographs of the interior, made between 1900 and 1906, and an essay by Lombroso17. The collected objects were not displayed in a representative fashion: the cups painted by prisoners, works of art by psychiatric patients, death masks of deceased inmates, and tools used in prisons were exhibited in the glass cases by the dozen.

  • 18 The «collection mania» did not only affect criminal anthropology; large ethnographic museums were c (...)
  • 19 Cf. Lombroso (1911, p. 305).
  • 20 Ibid.
  • 21 Lombroso and the so-called Italian school were strongly attacked, particularly from the French grou (...)

16The photographs and lithographs portrayed the patients and criminals in the same empiricist way. Everything was lined up in rows, the faces one next to another, all repetitions of standardized forms. The walls were packed with various pictures, stretching right up to the ceiling. And of course there were the never-ending mountains of skulls and skeletons. The «collection mania» was connected to a desire for comprehensiveness, a precondition for comparisons and scholarly evaluation18. But Lombroso was not interested solely in the classification of the Italian population into normal and abnormal categories, but in creating a typology of «the criminal» in general. He acquired items for comparison, such as portraits of criminals, from individual researchers of criminal anthropology. Additionally, the Spanish, Mexican, Portuguese, German, Chilean, and Australian governments had sent him copies of criminal albums before even the turn of the century19. Lombroso’s description of his museum emphasized a belief that he had already repeatedly expressed in numerous publications, one that demonstrated his assumption about the direct impact of the exhibits on the viewer: namely, that the portrayals of the criminals were in all cases characterized by physical anomalies; for example by deviant noses, enormous jaws, asymmetrical faces, sloping foreheads, prognathy, squinting and sunken eyes, lack of facial hair for men, and virility in female faces20. The museum was, for Lombroso, a visual manifestation of his science of crime and criminals; it was a collection of artifacts that created a reality. Perhaps his presentation of the collection to the criminal anthropological conferences was an attempt to demonstratively counter potential criticism21.

  • 22 See Lombroso (1911, p. 306).

17The criminal anthropological museum collection was to be a sort of visual training program. The purpose of this presentational strategy for the scientific community was not explained further; the only premise was that its documentation of deviancies should be educational and serve in some form to prevent crime. Lombroso’s pedagogical aim with the museum was to offer visible evidence that could help criminologists and state institutions learn to see the criminal characteristics22. The Lombroso Museum illustrates, in many respects, more general aspects of the field of science. It is a collection of objects that in the contemporary context of an intersection of areas of knowledge – in particular of criminology, forensic psychiatry, and physiognomy – was an idealization of evidence. The Lombroso Museum is a source of criminological thinking that engendered natural science concepts to explain human «nature», a line of thinking that utilized a Darwinist model that was completely limited to a biological view of humans.

18The pictures and other objects made their way into the museum from different sources: from police investigative work, prison archives, and medical and criminological research projects, all of the items arranged into a new mosaic in their new home. Without regard for technological progress in photography or for aesthetic values, any and all pictorial evidence that Lombroso could get hold of flowed into the museum. His collection of objects is very heterogeneous; however, his main interest was directed toward their usefulness for bio-semiotics. All methods of expression and the appearance of the criminal (his acts, his body, and his tattoos) were placed with the framework of a biological pattern.

  • 23 Portigliiani Barbos (1973, p. 1448).
  • 24 Lorenzer (1981, pp. 23-24).

19Yet no descriptive clarification accompanied the presentation of the objects. The items were ascribed a power of expression, as it were, as if they could speak for themselves – «parlano da sé»23. The pictures became symbols for the presentation of criminal types of a particular ideological makeup. The symbol is an objectification of human practice that communicates a definition, and is thus connected to meaning, as was established by Alfred Lorenzer, following Ernst Cassirer24. That is, the symbol cannot be understood by several people at once if it does not refer to a conceptual basic structure of shared ideas. In other words, that which was selectively presented by a criminological museum was based upon a fundamental consensus about the appearance of evil, of criminals, and of the visible expression of such traits on the body. As the science of criminology established itself at the turn of the century, criminological museums also appeared in other places.


  • 25 See: Wosnik (1926); Regener (1993, pp. 153-270).
  • 26 Wosnik (1926, 1, pp. 6-7).

20The Criminological Museum in Hamburg (founded in 1893), was of a similar structure to the Turin museum25. Here, also, an aura of knowledge surrounded the collection of artifacts of deviants, establishing as it were a metaphysics of evil: the object’s essence could be grasped merely by gazing at it. The items on view at the museum were therefore seen as important because knowledge would manifest itself in them. According to a text about the Hamburg Museum from the 1920s, «In the collected items for comparison and study of the museum, it is as if the accumulated experience of the individual were depicted»26.

  • 27 Cf. Carus (1858, p. 381).

21The process discussed above of seeing/understanding and the ensuing categorizing classification is comparable to the popular scientific methodology of physiognomy, which connects externally visible aspects to internal characteristics. The surface of an object provides the roadmap to an invisible meaning, which can be re-created by means of experience, in the same way that one can be trained to be a good judge of character27. In this sense, for example, the death masks of executed criminals in Hamburg were objects of study for physiognomic deviance; simply looking at these masks supposedly provided knowledge about the character of the deceased.

22On the following pages I will discuss the contemporary ideas about what a criminological museum was to achieve and how it was perceived. Criminological museums are archives of tangible knowledge about deviancy and an expression of a belief in a physiognomic record of humankind, stored in anthropological facets. The supposed all-seeing eye of the criminologists is actually concerned with that which is not perceivable by untrained eyes: objects and pictures stand for social outcasts and criminal energy. The magic formula for recognizing the invisible was a professionally trained gaze, which could be improved by viewing the selection of displayed artifacts. But what brought about this valuation of the objects?

  • 28 Pomian (1993, pp. 49-54).
  • 29 Groß (1894, p. 16).
  • 30 For instance, the bloody shirt collar and the bullet from the body of the murdered federal chancell (...)

23Krysztof Pomian calls such objects that do not possess value but nevertheless have a meaning «semiophores» (see Semeion – illustration)28. They are objects that in and of themselves do not have a use and that represent something invisible, until they are accorded a meaning. Examples of this phenomenon are the objects employed by criminals in a crime and any other circumstantial evidence: after the trial, these items are without value, waste-products. In the context of the museum, however, the role that they have been assigned them makes them valuable. The criminological scientist Hans Groß thus insisted in his 1894 plan for a criminological museum that a pedagogical collection of material could be assembled from items that were otherwise «lying around totally unused and without value» in court exhibit rooms and police precincts29. And, in fact, a revaluation of police evidence took place in the criminal museum, objects, it was believed, that still retained an essence of the crime30. These waste-products acquire a new value as semiophores. Similarly, photographs and illustrations of criminals that helped the judiciary identify a criminal acquired a new significance once placed in the museum. A portrait of a person could demonstrate criminal deviance by illustrating the individual’s physical characteristics. The picture used for identification in a previous context became a picture of a criminal type here. An object that used to serve one purpose (e.g., visual identification) was recreated within a new discourse, giving it a new meaning. In the context of the criminological museum, the pictures were rearranged in rows and grouped according to content. This approach was clearly based upon a body of knowledge that enabled the new construction of meaning. The objects that were supposed to speak for themselves thereby evidenced a theory and a new experience of crime and criminal behavior.

  • 31 Wosnik (1927, 2, pp. 13-22).
  • 32 Groß (1896, p. 90).

24The synthesis of photographs, death masks, and photographs of the victim at the scene of the crime could thus suggest the particular brutality of a murder-robbery, as in the case of Rudolf Albers (executed in 1914)31. According to the accompanying text in the Hamburg museum, the picture showed an «unusually emotionless and dangerous person.» Such a collage of images demonstrated a typical psychological profile, whose use Hans Groß recommended as a teaching tool: «Whenever for instance any object from a very cunning perpetration of a crime is being discussed, I make sure that I show any available photographs of the perpetrator, even when his expression is so unintelligent that one would not believe him to be capable of the crime in question»32.

  • 33 Pomian (1993, p. 61).

25Criminologists give the things they gathered a meaning not only by providing a means of deducing criminological knowledge; knowledge was also produced by these museums. In fact, a glance at the objects in a museum is an objective statement, for, as Pomian remarked, «collections are the insignia of their [scientists’] thought»33. The semiophores of the criminologists create a space, an overview, where, in a manner of speaking, the authority of the scientists over the object – the criminal – is staged.

  • 34 Groß (1899, p. 111).
  • 35 Groß (1896, p. 93).

26A museum as a state institution affirms a specific tradition. It lays out the framework in which the exhibited objects are brought into a formal relationship with each other. Clearly, an identifiable need had arisen around the end of the nineteenth century: in 1899, Hans Groß noted that a «young generation» was growing up that accorded the utmost significance to the «study of real facts in criminal law» using scientific methods34. The construction of knowledge was to take place by seeing, demonstrating a belief in positivism and legitimating the criminological museum. Groß said: «The criminological museum is definitely a necessary part of the study of criminology, it is to that field what an illustration is to a textbook, an experiment to chemistry, equipment to physics, the slide to anatomy, the test object to physiology – the so self-evident principle is true everywhere: that one must first have seen the objects about which one speaks and evaluates»35.

  • 36 Roscher (1912, p. 225). See also Wosnik (1926, 1, p. 1).
  • 37 Roscher (1899, p. 247).
  • 38 Ibid.
  • 39 Wosnik (1926, 1, p. 6).

27As a «collection of pedagogical objects and objects for comparison»36, the criminological museum was more than a historical cultural exhibit: its creators wanted to use it not only as an exhibit site, but in particular as a place of learning. Its instructive character was to be guaranteed by the careful selection of displayed items: «In general one should only put typical objects into the museum, typical either according to their composition or according to the way in which they were employed»37. Practically, the practice of teaching from real facts meant that objects could also always be replaced by other («more suitable») objects38. The guiding principle for museums was the following premise: «Every criminal typology must explain the actions of professional criminals, and every attack on the goods of human society can be traced back to the effects of especially strong motivations (motives). It is especially important for successful policing that these facts are thoroughly learnt»39.


  • 40 Roscher (1899, p. 248).

28The museum that Gustav Roscher built in Hamburg contained – like the Turin museum – collected objects whose relevance had only been lost insofar as they derived from an act that had already been committed and discovered. The spoils included weapons, poisons, finger prints, breaking and entry tools, models, and reproductions. Of these instructional items, the «criminal album» was of particular importance. This was a collection of pictorial/photographic representations of police activities, criminal acts, and criminal personalities40. This collection, taken from criminal activity, directed the viewer’s gaze back to criminal activity: the historical objects were accorded relevance once again as objects of comparison. As an aid for the criminal police, the criminological museum was embedded in the interaction between criminality and the fight against crime:

  • 41 Roscher (1912, pp. 210-211).

The fact that the criminals, particularly the professional and the international ones, carefully follow the progress of technology and science and use it in the execution of their criminal acts means that the criminal police are obligated to use all these items at their disposal in their fight against these [criminal] elements, if they do not wish to be at a disadvantage41.

  • 42 Groß (1896, p. 92).
  • 43 Roscher (1912, pp. 211-212).
  • 44 Handwörterbuch (1936, 2, p. 338).
  • 45 See Deneke (1977, pp. 118-132).
  • 46 Groß (1899, p. 128). Usually the museums were open to the public and were discussed in newspapers, (...)
  • 47 Handwörterbuch (1936, 2, p. 340).

29According to Groß’ strategy, known causes and known effects were exhibited «so that then in a serious case... in the process of a comparison, a clue for the tracing of a cause or else an effect can be given»42. Acquiring finger prints was not only a means of solving a crime but also provided – again in the sense of according an object new meaning – material for teaching about criminal behavior and the face of the criminal. Using these aids, criminal officials were to be able to think their way into the behavior, psyche and appearance of the criminals, into the «customs and tricks of the criminal world» and «the idiosyncrasies of the individual criminal», as Roscher insisted43. The museum was thereby the intersection between theory and practice of the criminal police. «Learning» in this museum connoted guiding the criminal police officer «by direct observation in the ways of thinking, the knowledge and the conclusions that make up his professional training»44. Following the general contemporary trend to understand museums as sites of learning45, criminal museums were built in such a way that the organized display of criminal objects provided a place of instruction for both new and experienced criminal police officers46. The pedagogical function provided by the arrangement of specific museum exhibits had to be connected with «expert instruction», according to the dictionary of criminology in the 1930s, «because one cannot just see that an otherwise harmless object is indicative of a crime and why this is so»47.

  • 48 Niceforo (c1909, pp. 394-398).

30The exhibits of the criminological museums in Berlin, Dresden, Graz, Hamburg, London, Rome, and Vienna were all classified and arranged according to the types of the offenses committed. For example, the classifications in Berlin included: 1. criminal acts and offenses against the person and his life; 2. types of theft; 3. false money and other forgeries, deceits, and games of chance; 4. international examples of capturing criminals (defense against attacks, transportation); 5. pornography; and, finally, 6. a collection of handwriting samples48. What looked at first like an arrangement of types of crimes and booty was at the same time an arrangement of faces that helped explain the criminal deeds. The museum supported the criminological pursuit of evil and its emissaries in a room of illustrative examples. Behind the trophies of criminology and criminological technology lay ideas about the typical customs of the perpetrators and criminal typologies. In the early 1900s, the Italian criminologist Alphons Niceforo described the value of the objects in the criminological laboratory thus:

  • 49 Ibid, p. 443.

The photographs or the original materials themselves will assist the examination of the criminal personality, as for example in displaying the different signs of degeneration in the physiognomy of the so-called born criminals. The instruments for the study of criminal emotions, of sensitivity to pain, of the different senses, of mobility and movements are likewise important exhibits. The collections of corpora delicti and the characteristic works of prison inmates illustrate the intelligence, the morality, and the sensitivity of the criminals49.

31The pedagogical and visual collections were directly concerned with making this connection between on the one hand anthropological and psychological ideas about criminals, and on the other hand selected pictures of the criminal body and objects that criminals had come into contact with. Everything came to be regarded as an important indicator. Behind the formal method of collecting lay questions about the appearance, the essence, and the specific behavior of the criminal, as was made clear by a source from the 1920s concerning the Hamburg criminological museum:

  • 50 Wosnik (1926, 1, p. 7).

The museum finally transmits the knowledge about those general characteristics that go hand-in-hand with the criminal mind; the motives that set the criminal will in motion; the peculiarity of the state of mood in which good and evil elements work confusedly; the behavior of a criminal before, during, and after the deed; the great struggle with the power of conscience or of fear that shakes the whole being of the person to its very core, etc. These are features that are of the greatest interest not only to the authorities but also to the normal citizen50.

32In this passage, something is articulated that I discussed earlier: with a particular reference to culture, symbolic forms are selected and then assigned a role as evidence and objects for study-objects that have the ability to instruct not only the specialist, but also the general public. The semiophores thus exhibited are examples of one way of looking at criminals, and they represent the desire to have crime under control. But they also function as symbols of victory, trophies, in the fight against crime. Finally, the construction of these museums also had an anthropological/ethnological function: to investigate a strange world, a subculture, in order to combat it better.

  • 51 See Beirne/ Messerschmidt (1991, p. 295). The exact beginning of positivism is difficult to identif (...)

33The criminological museum was, in the form described, the product of theoretical developments in criminological science. The so-called field of classical criminology focused on the act, whereas positivist criminology placed the criminals at the center of its studies51. Free will no longer explained an individual’s behavior, but rather biological predetermination did. The biological conception thereby provided not only a frame of reference for the explanation of criminality and of the idea of a criminal type, but also justified punitive measures (e.g., in determining the likelihood of relapse, degree of punishment, treatment at trial, etc.). The typology of the criminal was connected to pictures and objects in the museum; the displays of photographs and objects in the museum led to their re-evaluation as objects capable of transmitting culture.

  • 52 Sack (1987, p. 245).
  • 53 Photographs of suspicious individuals and inmates began to disappear from textbooks after the Secon (...)

34Yet the epistemological history of criminology did not remain at this juncture. True, criminology had, until the 1960s, «equated the scientific analysis of criminality with the investigation of the criminal act and of the criminal deed»52. But since then, the field has been deeply shaken by the «labeling perspective» (critical criminology) in its manifest individual explanatory approach. Briefly stated, under the premise that criminality is not something that is inherent in behavior, but rather is to be understood as a social phenomenon, the old-style pedagogical museum became questionable. The change of paradigm in criminology led to the gradual disappearance of the belief that evil can be seen and of the field of criminal psychology53.

  • 54 The exception is the «Pedagogical Collection for Criminal Police» in Hamburg, which still exclusive (...)
  • 55 A curious example of this phenomenon is the newly opened World Police Museum in Taiwan, which displ (...)

35After World War II, criminological museums were no longer maintained54. If the collections were not immediately destroyed, they continued to exist as «horror galleries» for the public. Over the last ten years there have been renewed efforts to establish criminological museums under the guise of «police historical collections» with a cultural-historical bent. These are concerned mainly with the history of organizations, costumes, weapons, and police activity (e.g., the Berlin Police History Collection). Perhaps a greater awareness of history on the part of police forces, or else the pressure to justify police activity, is responsible for a new trend of police public relations work, so that many German regional police departments support the setting up of such exhibits55.

  • 56 Sack (1991, p. 32).
  • 57 A recent example of this phenomenon is the popularity of films about serial killers and psychopaths (...)

36A direct connection between criminological discourse and museums no longer exists. Findings deriving from theory or practice in police or criminological work no longer can be put into a museum as an effective means of instruction – one could also say, there is nothing more to be seen. Once «the projection of the problem of criminality on and its implantation in the person of the perpetrator»56 was abandoned, the objects of a criminal act or the photographs of the perpetrators lost their symbolic and physiognomic power. Sketches of criminals, based upon the observation of the scene of the crime (and photographs of scenes of the crime) have replaced the old criminal albums (which were meant to train the eye to identify a type of perpetrator). In the case of so-called profiling, evidence left by the perpetrator at the scene of the crime is used to create a profile of the criminal’s personality. These are complicated analyses that supposedly ascertain the psychopathological behavior of the perpetrator. Museums today have become unnecessary for specialists because the processes of determining criminal behavior is carried out by other techniques than the mere examination of criminal objects. And for the public, evil can be portrayed in much more real terms through the medium of film than it can in a criminological museum57.

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Becker, P., Randgruppen im Blickfeld der Polizei: Ein Versuch über die Perspektivität des ‘praktischen Blicks’, Archiv für Sozialgeschichte, 1992, 32, pp. 283-302.

Beirne, P., Messerschmidt, J., Criminology, San Diego, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1991.

Carus, C.G., Symbolik der menschlichen Gestalt: Ein Handbuch zur Menschenkenntnis, 2nd ed., Leipzig, Brockhaus, 1858.

Colombo, G., La scienza infelice: il museo di antropologia criminale di Cesare Lombroso, Turin, P. Boringheri, 1975.

Deneke, B., Die Museen und die Entwicklung der Kulturgeschichte, in Deneke, B., Kahsnitz, R. (Eds), Das kunst- und kulturgeschichtliche Museum im 19. Jahrhundert, Munich, Prestel, 1977, pp. 118-132.

Elster, A., Lingemann, H. (Eds), Handwörterbuch der Kriminologie 2, Berlin/Leipzig, de Gruyter, 1936.

Gadebusch Bondio, M., Die Rezeption der kriminalanthropologischen Theorien von Cesare Lombroso in Deutschland 1880-1914, Husum, Matthiesen, 1995.

Groß, H., Die Ausbildung des praktischen Juristen, Zeitschrift für die gesamte Strafrechts­wissenschaft, 1894, 14, pp. 1-18.

Groß, H., Das Kriminal-Museum in Graz, Zeitschrift für die gesamte Strafrechtswissenschaft, 1896, 16, pp. 74-94.

Groß, H., Kriminalistische Institute, Archiv für Kriminal-Anthropologie, 1899, 1, pp. 108-117.

Groß, H., Die Ausstellung der k. k. Polizeidirection in Wien auf der Jubiläumsausstellung in Wien, Archiv für Kriminal-Anthropologie und Kriminal-Biologie, 1899b, 1, p. 128 f.

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Lombroso, C., L’uomo delinquente, studiato in rapporto alla antropologia, alla medicina legale ed alle discipline carcerarie, Milan, Hoeppli, 1876.

Lombroso, C., Il mio museo criminale, L’illustrazione italiana (1911, Lombroso archive).

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2 Groß (1894, p. 4).

3 Groß (1894, pp 13-15) showing a total of twenty-nine categories of objects.

4 Schmidt (1993, p. 122).

5 Nye (1984); Regener (1999).

6 Becker (1992, pp. 283-302).

7 I would like to thank the director of the Institute for Medical Jurisprudence, Professor Mario Portigliatti Barbos, for his support of my research.

8 For Lombrosos’ complete biography, see Colombo (1975); Gadebusch Bondio (1995, pp. 18-36).

9 See MAC, no. 1145, Album dei Delinquenti, vol.1 (1871).

10 Kurella (1911, p. 1).

11 Lombroso (1876). The accompanying pictorial atlas Atlante first appeared with the third edition (Torino 1896-1897), primarily due to technical difficulties with printing. The second edition of 1878 was considerably expanded. See Gadebusch Bondio (1995, pp. 38-40).

12 See Colombo (1975, p. 51). After Lombroso’s death in 1909, his student and successor Mario Carrara maintained the museum as a public institution until 1914.

13 Portigliatti Barbos (1989, p. 588). See also there the illustrations from the collection.

14 Pomian (1994, p. 117).

15 Radzinowicz (1991, pp. 31-32).

16 Pick (1989, pp. 116-117).

17 Lombroso (1911). This is the rewritten version of a handwritten manuscript that I found in MAC, written by Lombroso in 1906. See illustrations in Colombo (1975); Regener (1999).

18 The «collection mania» did not only affect criminal anthropology; large ethnographic museums were created in the 1870s (in Leipzig, Dresden, Hamburg, Berlin, London, Vienna, Rome, Lyons, Paris) that focused on the historical development of humanity. See Wunderkammer (1994, p. 76).

19 Cf. Lombroso (1911, p. 305).

20 Ibid.

21 Lombroso and the so-called Italian school were strongly attacked, particularly from the French group supporting Lacasagne. See Pick (1989, pp. 139-152); Gadebusch Bondio (1995, pp. 123-149).

22 See Lombroso (1911, p. 306).

23 Portigliiani Barbos (1973, p. 1448).

24 Lorenzer (1981, pp. 23-24).

25 See: Wosnik (1926); Regener (1993, pp. 153-270).

26 Wosnik (1926, 1, pp. 6-7).

27 Cf. Carus (1858, p. 381).

28 Pomian (1993, pp. 49-54).

29 Groß (1894, p. 16).

30 For instance, the bloody shirt collar and the bullet from the body of the murdered federal chancellor Dollfuß were transferred to the Viennese criminal museum shortly after the trial against the National Socialist rebels (1934). See Seyrl (1985, p. 10 ff).

31 Wosnik (1927, 2, pp. 13-22).

32 Groß (1896, p. 90).

33 Pomian (1993, p. 61).

34 Groß (1899, p. 111).

35 Groß (1896, p. 93).

36 Roscher (1912, p. 225). See also Wosnik (1926, 1, p. 1).

37 Roscher (1899, p. 247).

38 Ibid.

39 Wosnik (1926, 1, p. 6).

40 Roscher (1899, p. 248).

41 Roscher (1912, pp. 210-211).

42 Groß (1896, p. 92).

43 Roscher (1912, pp. 211-212).

44 Handwörterbuch (1936, 2, p. 338).

45 See Deneke (1977, pp. 118-132).

46 Groß (1899, p. 128). Usually the museums were open to the public and were discussed in newspapers, as was the case for the Berlin Criminal Museum. See Neue Preussische Zeitung 43 (1895), supplement.

47 Handwörterbuch (1936, 2, p. 340).

48 Niceforo (c1909, pp. 394-398).

49 Ibid, p. 443.

50 Wosnik (1926, 1, p. 7).

51 See Beirne/ Messerschmidt (1991, p. 295). The exact beginning of positivism is difficult to identify; its precursors were the phrenologists (Gall, Spurzheim), and in particular the statistical work of Quételet.

52 Sack (1987, p. 245).

53 Photographs of suspicious individuals and inmates began to disappear from textbooks after the Second World War.

54 The exception is the «Pedagogical Collection for Criminal Police» in Hamburg, which still exclusively is used for visual instruction in the training of police officers. Its collection contains primarily recent material.

55 A curious example of this phenomenon is the newly opened World Police Museum in Taiwan, which displays typical emblems, police badges, and uniforms for every country.

56 Sack (1991, p. 32).

57 A recent example of this phenomenon is the popularity of films about serial killers and psychopaths, for instance «Silence of the Lambs» (USA 1991, directed by Jonathan Demme) and «Seven» (USA 1995, directed by David Fincher).

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Susanne Regener, « Criminological Museums and the Visualization of Evil »Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies, Vol. 7, n°1 | 2003, 43-56.

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Susanne Regener, « Criminological Museums and the Visualization of Evil »Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies [En ligne], Vol. 7, n°1 | 2003, mis en ligne le 25 février 2009, consulté le 16 octobre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Susanne Regener

Genthiner Str. 6, D-10785 Berlin,
Susanne Regener, Dr. phil., habil. Lecturer in Cultural Studies, European Ethnology, Media Studies. At the time guest-professor at University of Klagenfurt. Publications about: culture of childhood, visual culture, history of photography, gender studies, cultural history of death, images of psychiatry and criminology, internet-pictures. Main book: Fotografische Erfassung (Photographic Recordung): Zur Geschichte medialer Konstruktionen des Kriminellen, Munich, 1999.

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