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The importance of police history

Holmes, Poirot, Columbo and even the likes of the Bill, Happy Valley, Luther and the Wire are great examples of popular culture’s ongoing fascination with all things policing and police history. It is a topic which is consumed at an alarming rate but does what’s going on behind-the-scenes reflect this?

The short answer is no.

What many people don’t think of is how fantastic productions like the Wire and the many Sherlock Holmes films come to be, and the answer is that they are built from the hard work and dedication of the thousands of police archivists, academics, historians and curators. Across the UK alone there are over 50 known police and crime museums with an unknown number of extensive private collections to boot. To supplement this, there are various police history societies and individual archives which also assist in maintaining and proliferating police and crime history.

Despite being a museum for all emergency services, we are also included in the ranks of ‘police history caretakers’ and there are lots of us, busily working away underneath the surface, keeping the cogs turning so you can have your Inspector Morse and Constable Dixon.

But, why?

Perhaps you don’t have a penchant for Poirot or a hankering for Holmes, maybe true crime series terrify you and you’ve never thought to leaf through Agatha Christie but police history remains a fundamental part of understanding our society and the keeping of that history, regardless of your addiction to Line of Duty, is essential.

Here at NESM we hold a large collection pertaining to policing and police history. This includes modern examples, such as 20th and 21st century equipment, vehicles and records. Each object captures information; for example, a 21st century Armed Response Vehicle (ARV) can tell us basic information such as what the vehicle carries, what they are used for and how they work but they can also capture the society in which they were produced, they are a physical representation of 21st century societal fears, developments in criminal activity and terrorism, they also showcase modern technology, changes in materials and even economic history; highlighting where government funding is spent and what that may suggest. That one, simple vehicle is bursting with information which can tell us everything we need to know about society and the world around us, imagine what we can do with stuff from 200 years ago!

So whilst police history and policing is delicious to consume, it’s also vital to our understanding of the past and the present and offers us a perspective that little other areas of society and history can replicate.

But what about in practice?

Despite being vitally important, the support system around actively collecting and preserving police history is sorely lacking. For many forces there are no in-house heritage teams or even written procedures that detail what should happen to equipment, uniforms and records after their use. It’s not uncommon for us to be called when Victorian ledgers have been found in skips outside stations or when 19th century uniforms are found moth-eaten and forgotten in office cupboards. It’s a sad fact that so many interesting and important objects find their way into skips, bins and even bonfires but why, when other services are so devoted to documenting, organising and collecting their history?

It’s certainly not for lack of trying, the many police museums, collections and historians up and down the country do a marvellous job but often we are fighting a lack of understanding. So many don’t consider objects to be of historical importance and where they do, they may not know where to send them and what procedure should be followed. To make matters worse, issues around privacy, law restrictions and general GDPR make the pathway from a police station to an archive or museum tremendously difficult. Growing pressures and increased cuts also often means that forces don’t regularly have the resources to put to the task of heritage maintenance.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, resolutions can be found in education, communication and partnership work. Here at NESM we have spent the last 40 years growing our policing collection. With that, we’ve grown our partnerships with police forces around the country, particularly South Yorkshire Police so that we are recognised as an organisation that will care for their heritage even if they cannot. We’ve also begun work on strengthening our network with collectors, academics and other museums and are working with others to develop a written system and network to be used for the collecting process. NESM will also be recruiting a team of specialists to consult on a voluntary basis to allow for a better understanding of the police collection and to allow for more time to be devoted to educating and communicating the importance of saving history at police stations, offices and stores.

But what can you do?

Whilst us, and others like us, try to tackle the problem from the inside we need members of the public to spread the message too. So many of our best policing objects come to us from the dark corners of a loft or the walls of pubs so we look to members of the public, like you to keep celebrating policing history by saving things from the bin! You can also do your bit by supporting police museums and collections. If you can’t visit or use these places, share, like and follow on social media and help them celebrate such a crucial part of our past.

If you love all things police history you should go and support our neighbouring police museums:

National Justice Museum, Nottingham

Manchester Police Museum & Archives

Bradford Police Museum

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