Coffee with a Curator is back and today I have the absolute honour of sharing a (virtual) coffee with the curator of the new Bow Street Police Museum, Jen Kavanagh. An independent curator by profession, Jen was commissioned to curate the displays and exhibits in the museum housed in part of the former Bow Street police station in London.
I visited the museum on the 5th June and it exceeded all of my expectations. In the main room and adjoining row of cells, Jen has managed to encapsulate 111 years of history in displays and exhibits which are easy-to-follow, highly informative, entertaining, and relevant to society today. Highlights include the original dock from Bow Street Magistrates’ Court and interviews with former Bow Street police officers, including the first black and first Asian police officers in the Metropolitan Police. As a visually impaired individual I also found the displays easy-to-read and the entire museum very well-lit and easy to navigate.
I started my chat with Jen by asking, please could you tell us a little about the new Bow Street Police Museum and your role as its curator?
Bow Street Police Museum is a new independent museum housed in a section of No.28 Bow Street that was once Bow Street Police Station. The station closed in 1992, with the adjacent Magistrates’ Court later closing in 2006, and since then the building had stood empty. In 2017, hotel developers Sydell Group acquired the amazing and historic building, and a request was made by Westminster City Council for a museum to exist on the site along with the new NoMad London hotel. Sydell Group embraced the challenge and in late 2019 I was brought on board to curate the new museum. My task was to find a way of telling the incredible and long history of policing on Bow Street. It’s such a special opportunity to open a museum about the building the museum is located in, so my focus was to give visitors a sense of place when they entered and to reveal what working life was like behind the doors of the police station from those who served as the last of the ‘Bow Street Runners’.
What can visitors expect to see at the museum?
The museum starts by telling the story of the very earliest justice system on Bow Street, right back in 1740 with Thomas de Veil. The content then moves on to explain how the Bow Street Runners and Patrols operated, before examining how the formation of the Metropolitan Police changed policing in Covent Garden. Visitors will see some early Bow Street objects which we have loaned from the Metropolitan Police Heritage Service, as well as a replica uniform depicting what a Bow Street Runner would have worn. The museum then moves on to reveal the stories of those who worked at the police station within living memory. There is a short film made with six former officers, an audio experience, and some wonderful photographs that I sourced directly from former Bow Street police men and women. A lot of the exhibits are located in the former male police prison cells, giving the museum a unique atmosphere.
What is the museum’s strangest exhibit?
Good question! As there aren’t a lot of early Bow Street objects in existence, hence the replica uniform, we wanted to display some unusual objects related to early policing in London to give visitors an idea of the types of items the Runners and Patrols would have been equipped with. I think the strangest item is probably a beat wheel, which was used to measure the length of a police officer’s beat. It looks a bit like a unicycle!
Why is it important to conserve the history of Bow Street?
The history of policing on Bow Street is so important and takes us right back to the origins of justice systems as we know them. Many of those who served at Bow Street were really sad to see the station close in 1992 and for the legacy of the Runners to be lost. Bringing a museum to the site feels like we have brought a section of the police station back to life, and allows visitors to step foot into such an iconic building.
How do I make a booking to visit?
Tickets for the museum can be booked online via the museum’s website – bowstreetpolicemuseum.org.uk. We are open Friday, Saturday and Sunday for the first few months, and can’t wait to welcome you and your readers!
What advice would you give to someone thinking about curation as a career?
Working in the heritage sector is brilliant, and I feel so lucky that I have the opportunity to tell important stories and provide a platform for people to share their experiences with others. It’s a competitive sector, so start out by chatting with curators in your local museums and maybe seeing what work experience opportunities there might be. A passion for storytelling, people and history is a must, even if, like me, the history you specialise in is very contemporary! Everyone has a story to tell and I believe that as curators we have a responsibility to tell as many histories as we can. So curious and open minds are very welcome!
I’d like to thank Jen Kavanagh for taking the time to speak to me today. I’m sure you found her answers as fascinating as I did. I’d highly recommend a visit to the Bow Street Police Museum as it gives a truly unique insight into the working lives of its former officers. If you’ve read The Case of the Spectral Shot you’ll also know its where Inspector Caleb Woolfe is based.
Bow Street Police Museum
28 Bow Street
Current opening times: Friday – Sunday 11:00 – 16:00
Book your visit: https://bowstreetpolicemuseum.org.uk/visit/tickets/
Subscribe to the free Bow Street Police Museum newsletter:https://bowstreetpolicemuseum.org.uk/about-us/stay-in-touch/
~ T.G. Campbell,June 2021
Curator of the Bow Street Police Museum
Artwork by Peter Spells