Sometimes a tourist attraction can be less than stellar but lead to an interesting experience.
After 29 days in Australia, Ruth and I were back in Sydney. It was early afternoon on our last day, and we had done everything on our list except for the Justice and Police Museum one block from Circular Quay on the corner of Philip and Albert Streets. Once 3 buildings near the waterfront of a tough city founded by and for alleged criminals, the Museum tour included a look at a courtroom used from 1856 to 1886, a recreated police charging room, and holding cells.
One tourist guide from a previous trip informed that inside was a “collection of weird and wonderful memorabilia from some of the most notorious and sensational crimes in Australia’s judicial history”. So I expected weird but wasn’t sure about wonderful.
Past the reception area we entered dark rooms from an authentic 19th century police station now sparsely furnished with display cases containing police uniforms and helmets. Ho hum.
“A spine-chilling collection of criminal weapons and a mug-shot gallery,” one website had promised before I browsed its visitor comments. “This tourist site would be more interesting to those who wish to investigate the New South Wales police and justice system.” I agreed. Another commented, ” Fantastic for kids too but some of the exhibitions can be quite graphic.” Kids? Here?
By the second room, Ruth had already left me behind so I knew she wasn’t engaged. Stopping to examine a hangman’s noose, an execution hood, and surveillance equipment, I noticed that the room was filling with kids. They turned out to be very serious, well-behaved students from a Catholic school. Some were interested in law enforcement and legal careers I learned later when I accidentally opened a door to a courtroom where they were engaged in a mock trial.
The kids didn’t acknowledge me but the teacher smiled in my direction. After she talked about a particularly gruesome 1878 mask that made the person wearing it gag very unpleasantly, she saw I was leaving and invited me to stay and hear what she had to say. So I lingered as she moved on to torture instruments that included made-in-prison weapons. As she graphically demonstrated the use of one, she had a male student point to its many chilling features. Then she reminded her students that the physical punishment of prisoners was common until the early 1900s but was not possible today thanks to human rights considerations.
She reminded them that there had been no executions in Australia since 1967 and noted a global trend to abolish capital punishment since economic stability made it possible for many countries to abandon it. She used the United States as an example of a country that unfortunately still used it. Beginning to feel a bit barbaric, I flashed on other times in travel when I had overheard conversations that wouldn’t have evolved quite the way they did (probably) if the speakers had known that an American was listening.
As I went on to read about The Pyjama Girl and the Graeme Thorne kidnapping, my view of the museum edged up from general indifference to heightened interest because of what I had heard.