Museum of Sydney: Underworld

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.

Source: Sydney Living Museums, Police & Justice Museum, 2018, Online:

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:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s