Underworld – Mugshots from the Roaring Twenties


Source: Sydney Living Museums, Police & Justice Museum, 2018, Online: https://sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/justice-police-museum


Hello, my name is Ziggy Potts and Rebecca asked me to share with you some of my thoughts on a recent exhibition. ‘Underworld: Mugshots from the Roaring Twenties,’ is now showing at the Museum of Sydney. This exhibition is one that I was very keen to visit, as I have always been fascinated by underworld figures seen in various television series such as ‘Tough Nuts: Australia’s Hardest Criminals’ and the various iterations of ‘Underbelly.’

The basis for the exhibition is a series of mugshots, known as ‘Specials’, taken by Sydney police in the 1920s for suspected potential criminals. At first thought, I was wondering how much specific information on the mugshots would be available and whether the exhibition would try and centre on specific stories of people and their lives – especially well-known criminals such as Kate Leigh or ‘Chow’ Hayes. However, I would have thought that given the wealth of popular programming on these figures (mentioned above), another focus would serve the exhibition better.


Kate Leigh – By Long Bay Women’s Reformatory, NSW [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

To my pleasant surprise, this is exactly what the Museum of Sydney did, using mugshots as exploratory, descriptive and explanatory examples to illustrate and reflect on the wider themes and aspects of life in 1920s Sydney. On stepping into the exhibition, one is greeted by an introduction panel detailing the history of police mugshots around the world. This includes the first ever known mugshot, taken c.1843/1844 in Belgium. It then goes into detail about how Sydney ‘Specials’ were, in a number of ways, distinct from other mugshots of the time. Firstly, they did not show the suspect in handcuffs so as not to influence the jury at their trial. Rather, they could take any pose they wished, often relaxed as if in the middle of a conversation. Thereby, the shots reflected their individual personalities and included a chair that was used as a height reference. It was also interesting to note that, unlike the protocol in other cities, it was possible for suspects who were found not guilty to have their faces scratched out of the mugshots.

From here, there was a fun little activity where a full length mirror with some era appropriate clothing and accessories provided. Anyone so inclined could dress up and imagine themselves as having their mugshot taken.

For me, the most interesting part of this exhibition was the following section focusing on family. Wives were often initially charged with receiving stolen goods in order to make their husbands confess to an actual burglary and theft. Given that crime often runs in families, siblings would often commit crimes together, use their names to confuse police and to provide alibis. Some of the mugshots of brothers side by side were extremely similar and I had some difficulty telling them apart. Also provided were a couple of touch screens that gave examples of siblings, telling individual stories of mugshots, including the history of the person (if known) and their pending charges. I thought this interactivity was very positive in that it not only tied in with, but expanded upon, the theme of family. It also provided more detailed and specific information on individual mugshots that was often difficult to obtain.

As one moves further along the exhibition, there is a clear progression from one theme to another, with descriptive text introducing the theme followed by a series of example mugshots. Where possible, more individual details on the mugshots were provided. One particular thing that caught my eye were two charges that would be very out of place in 2018 Sydney. The first was vagrancy (having no visible means of support for oneself), evidently alluding to the fact that the individual could have been supporting themselves through crime or were planning to do so. The second was wife desertion, which seemed quite odd from my perspective. This just shows the cultural differences and evolution that Western society has gone through over the last century.

As mentioned, the exhibition was carefully organised and grouped thematically, under two broad themes of Crime, and Life, in the Roaring Twenties. For Crime, this was further divided into ‘Bosses,’ ‘Bruisers’, ‘Petty Crims,’ and ‘Plotters,’ whilst the Roaring Twenties themes included ‘Flappers,’ ‘Cocaine,’ ‘Opium’ and ‘Joy Riders.’ While I think it would be a disservice to go into too much detail regarding the specifics of these themes, so as to not rob you readers of the fantastic and enlightening opportunity this exhibition will provide, I will briefly outline my thoughts.

First and foremost, starting, as I did, with the Crime section and finishing with the Roaring Twenties gave me a clear sense of cause and effect. I was able to follow what types of criminals there were, the crimes they were committing but, most significantly, how and why life and culture within 1920s Sydney was often a catalyst for crime. For instance, many returned servicemen who had trouble fitting back in with the routine of normal society following the horrors of war would often turn to crime to support themselves. Especially since there was little in the way of state support for some of them. Another example are those young women, known as ‘Flappers’ who, seeking the high life of fashion and luxury, would often use crime as a means to that end.

One last thing I should note is the useful inclusion of a small seating area with a ten minute video detailing some of the more intriguing and better known personalities of the time. This included the war between two gangs, one headed by ‘Squizzy’ Taylor and Ethel Violet Benn, known to use drainpipes to climb into windows and rob houses. This was a good place to end my time in the exhibition as it gave me a chance to absorb and reflect on the information and my overall experience. It also presented some of the information already on display in the exhibition in a visually entertaining way that gave visitors an alternative option to experience the exhibition.


‘Squizzy’ Taylor via Wikimedia Commons


Overall, this exhibition was very well done with the right mix of interactive technology and text. The organisation and layout of the collection provided varied levels of detail while not over-saturating the space with too many mugshots that might confuse and overwhelm the visitor. It also allowed for flow and movement within the space so it was not overcrowded with people reading every bit of detail, as I often like to do. Although much of this information is concurrently available online and is very useful (particularly for me in writing this piece), I urge you readers to experience it in person as moving physically through the space, as opposed to clicking from one webpage to another, provides a much more cohesive and interesting experience.

This post was written by Ziggy Potts.

It is always so great to read about the wonderful exhibitions happening all over Australia. Thank you Ziggy for a great post! I was really excited to learn that there is an online version of the exhibition that you can access here: https://sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/underworld.

Museums I’d Love to Revisit

In honour of Valentine’s Day, two years ago I wrote a list of museums I love. Last year, I thought about what museums I’d love to visit. In keeping with this tradition, I am going to focus my post for this year on museums I’d love to revisit. This has been the most challenging by far. There are so many museums I would love to see again. This might be because my interests have changed or because I just couldn’t see everything the first time!

1. Museo Nacional de Antropologia (National Museum of Anthropology), Mexico City

Waterfall in Museum Entrance

Reason: Visitor Fatigue Continue reading Museums I’d Love to Revisit

Exhibition Launch – Collection Intervention

I cannot believe that this is my first review of an exhibition launch. I have attended a few but never really had much to write about. This time, however, I was able to spend quite a bit of time exploring the exhibition as well as enjoying the launch. The exhibition in question is Collection Intervention, now on display at the Rockhampton Art Gallery.


Continue reading Exhibition Launch – Collection Intervention

Australian Museum – Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age

Photo 24-1-18, 11 52 01 am

Hello readers! It has been a while but I’m back again with a guest post. I recently took the opportunity to visit the Australian Museum so that I could see the temporary exhibition currently showing, ‘Mammoths – Giants of the Ice Age’. I also wanted to check out the newly renovated Westpac Long Gallery. When I arrived, however, there were signs everywhere stating that the gallery was closed due to some sort of technical problem – but more on that later. A quick note on ticketing – I had checked online prior to visiting and established that my Museums Australia membership, which usually allows for free admittance to the Museum, did not allow for a discounted ticket to this paid exhibition. This was fine, however, the ticketing officer who served me seemed desperate to offer me some sort of discount (was I a student? Or Westpac customer?) and when I mentioned I am a Museums Australia member I was given a discounted rate. There are no less than twenty-one (yes you read that right, twenty-one) different ticket prices listed on the website for this exhibition. This seems like overkill to me and obviously left me confused. But, I digress. Continue reading Australian Museum – Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age

What I Learned in 2017 & What I Want to Learn in 2018…


Rifle Paper Co., 2018 Planner, 2018


Welcome to my first blog post of 2018! I am hoping that this will be an excellent year filled with new adventures and lots of learning. The theme provided by GLAM Blog Club, what I learned in 2017 and what I want to learn in 2018, allows for both reflection and the opportunity to write down some goals. It is now time to momentarily cast mindfulness aside and obsess over the past and ponder the future.  Continue reading What I Learned in 2017 & What I Want to Learn in 2018…

Noel McKenna: Landscape Mapped


Out of all the exhibitions I wanted to see in Brisbane, Landscape Mapped was at the top of my list. I had seen a few different works promoted on the webiste of QaGOMA, including the map of public bathrooms in Sydney’s CBD. In short, I was hoping for a pretty cool exhibition that used maps creatively and showed me something I had never known about Australia. Continue reading Noel McKenna: Landscape Mapped

Tweed Regional Gallery & Margaret Olley Art Centre

Today we crossed the border between Queensland and New South Wales to visit the Tweed Regional Gallery & Margaret Olley Art Centre. Set in such beautiful surrounds with views that will be Instagrammed endlessly, we were very excited to explore what was on display. There were a few temporary exhibitions and, of course, the Margaret Olley Art Centre. This post is going to cover a few different things focusing on some of the exhibitions and our guided tour.


The building was like a Tardis (relevant Doctor Who reference considering the first female doctor was revealed last night to much delight!!). From the outside you would never guess how large it is inside. There are three large rooms and a pretty big hallway. Each bit of available wall space was in use for an exhibition. Despite this, the gallery never felt cluttered. A lot of thought had gone into the construction of the building and it had a nice flowing effect. Here were my favourite exhibitions that are currently on display.  Continue reading Tweed Regional Gallery & Margaret Olley Art Centre