The only thing in the world as ubiquitous as crime is our fascination with it. From novels to TV shows to podcasts, we can’t seem to get enough of humanity’s worst side. And there’s no better way to dive into the underworld than through one of the many museums dedicated to it. Here are seven museums dedicated to the violent, morbid, and occasionally heroic on display at home and around the world.
1. VANCOUVER POLICE MUSEUM & ARCHIVES // VANCOUVER, B.C., CANADA
Located in a former coroner’s office and morgue, the Vancouver Police Museum & Archives offers an unblinking look at over 100 years of crime and its consequences in the Canadian city. Beyond the autopsy table and chalkboard for organ weights, the museum comprises several in-depth exhibits showcasing weapons, sketches, and actual forensic evidence from some of the area’s most infamous crimes, including the Babes in the Woods case and the Milkshake Murders. You can also go mobile with one of the museum’s Sins of the City walking tours, which explore the seedier sides of Vancouver's historic districts through the lens of corruption, prostitution, and bootlegging. All walking tours come with free admission to the museum.
2. THE MOB MUSEUM // LAS VEGAS, NEVADA, UNITED STATES
“All the dirt. All in one place.” Where else but Las Vegas would you find a museum with such a titillating tagline? The Mob Museum, housed in a former post office and courthouse, offers four floors of wise-guy-related history. From a basement distillery that produces moonshine in real time to a gallery of spy tech to a look at the current state of mafioso affairs, this museum takes visitors on a grand tour of the organized underworld. Special events like panel discussions and book signings are held fairly regularly, and guided tours are available for groups.
3. MEDIEVAL CRIME AND JUSTICE MUSEUM // ROTHENBURG OB DER TAUBER, GERMANY
Located in a 600-year-old building in the Bavarian town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, the Medieval Crime and Justice Museum is a monument to 1000 years of European jurisprudence—and some of it’s not so pretty. About 50,000 artifacts, including legal texts, illustrations, torture devices, and a few truly unsettling dioramas, guide visitors through the myriad ways in which the legal system infiltrated daily life. From witch trials to execution devices to public humiliation (look for the Schandflöte, or "shame flute," inflicted upon offensive musicians), there’s plenty to educate and disturb. Guided tours are available in German and English and require pre-booking.
4. CIA MUSEUM // MCLEAN, VIRGINIA, UNITED STATES
Unfortunately, the CIA Museum, located at CIA headquarters, is not open to the public, but if you happen to have a contact on the inside, or catch one of their fairly regular external exhibitions, or peruse their extensive online collection, you’ll be treated to several decades’ worth of espionage, history, and spycraft. Among the 200-plus items included in the online collection are false ears used in disguises, unmanned vehicles the size and shape of dragonflies, propaganda leaflets, hollow coins, and pigeon cameras. Less sexy but equally interesting exhibits include presidential communications and photos of CIA aircraft. Each item comes with a story and many are linked to related artifacts, for a more holistic spy experience.
5. JUSTICE AND POLICE MUSEUM // SYDNEY, NSW, AUSTRALIA
The most family-friendly museum on this list, the Justice and Police Museum in Sydney, Australia, offers visitors the chance to be part of mock trials or have their mugshots taken. Young crime-fighters (or villains in training) can also solve crimes or plan prison breaks, have their fingerprints taken, and crack a safe. In case that feels too wholesome, there are adults-only exhibits that examine murder, inner-city crime, and the seedier side of the land down under. Check the museum’s website if you plan to visit, as some exhibits and programs are weekends only.
6. MUSEUM OF RESCUED ART TREASURES // BREST, BELARUS
Opened at the end of the Soviet era, the Museum of Rescued Art Treasures, also known as the Museum of Confiscated Art, is a testament to human ingenuity—on both the light and dark sides. The building houses more than 300 pieces of art, including Russian iconography dating back to the 16th century, porcelain and jade items, and china. The eclectic collection comes courtesy of art smugglers who used the chaos during the fall of the USSR to move priceless pieces across borders. Brest became a prime transfer point, and smugglers got creative; one of the exhibits is a set of antique furniture that was found hidden in containers of powdered milk. As customs officials got better at sniffing out these hidden treasures, the museum sprang up as a way to restore, house, and display them. According to amateur genealogical research organization the Brest-Belarus Group, this is the only museum of its kind in what was once the USSR.
7. CRIME MUSEUM AT SCOTLAND YARD // LONDON, UK
Perhaps the most fascinating museum on our list, the Crime Museum at Scotland Yard is also the most maddening. Also known as the Black Museum, this vast archive of artifacts from some of London’s most infamous cases is closed to the public. Founded in the mid-1870s by one Inspector Neame of the Metropolitan Police force, the collection of prisoner property was originally intended to be used in the instruction of recruits, but it soon garnered the attention of other members of law enforcement and the public at large. While certain celebrities like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini were granted access, the general masses (and the media) were denied that privilege. In 1890, the Metropolitan Police moved to their new headquarters, New Scotland Yard, and the museum went for the ride. Over the years the collection has grown and now contains murder weapons, explosives, counterfeiting tools, death masks, and personal property or evidence from famous cases such as Jack the Ripper, Dr. Crippen, and the Kray twins, along with details about the impact these cases had on the British criminal justice system. For one brief, shining moment in the fall of 2015, the museum opened up several of its exhibits for public viewing, but has since shut its doors once more, leaving us outside, gently salivating.