Home » Exhibitions » Exhibition Review: Executions at the Museum of London Docklands from 14 October 2022 to 16 April 2023

Exhibition Review: Executions at the Museum of London Docklands from 14 October 2022 to 16 April 2023

The Museum of London Docklands presents a new exhibition entitled Executions which explores the phenomenon of public execution in London’s history through the stories, objects and legacies of those that lived, died and witnessed the events first hand from 1196 to 1868.

London was the location of many high-profile public executions. From Smithfield to Southwark, from Banqueting House to Newgate Prison, executions became part of London’s social and cultural landscape.

The exhibition reveals the social, cultural and economic impact of public executions over 700 years through a range of fascinating objects, paintings and projections.

The exhibition begins by looking at some of the methods of execution like burning, boiling, beheading, hanging and the very gruesome Hanging, Drawing and Quartering.

Public executions were used in many ways, but mainly to deter crime and rebellion and demonstrate the power of the crown, church and state. The most horrific type of execution was mostly reserved for traitors of the state, common criminals were usually hanged. 

Where the execution took place was often due to the type of crime, high profile executions took place on Tower Hill and Smithfield, Tyburn gallows were mostly used by common criminals.

The exhibition features an immersive projection recreation of the Tyburn gallows. 

As the centuries passed, more and more crimes were punishable by death, at the end of the 18th century over 200 crimes led to the possibility of a death sentence. Many of the executions attracted large crowds and the exhibition explores the spectacle and rituals of execution days.

Some of the condemned like Jack Shepherd played up to the crowd, especially the ‘celebrity criminals’ using ‘gallows humour’ and many wore their best clothes to the execution.

Executions were embedded in popular culture, theatre and literature. Pamphlets and broadsheets were specially produced to be sold at the execution.

The exhibition features a section on gibbeting which was usually reserved for pirates, the bodies would be left in a metal cage along the river as a warning not to be tempted to follow that ‘profession’.

In the exhibition’s final section is a series of objects that chart the end of public executions, the emergence of Victorian ideas of civilised behaviour led to the decline of public executions. Executions behind closed doors became a more sombre affair with more emphasis on the criminal coming to terms with his actions and to seek forgiveness from God.

This fascinating exhibition provides some insights into the darker aspects of London history. The story of Executions is one with many strands with the power of ‘life and death’ often in the hands of the elites who offered gruesome spectacles to the masses. The exhibition illustrates that executions had a process and rituals which played to some of the worst aspects of human nature. Often the execution was not about justice but was carried out for revenge and malice. Although the subject of the exhibition may not appeal to everyone, it is an important reminder of London’s grim and gory history.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

For more information, visit the Museum of London Docklands website here

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