An enduring interest in law-breakers and crime, a flair for historical research and a kind of noir-tinged knack for storytelling set Nerida Campbell up for a life in crime. Composed and unhurried, like an old-school detective, Nerida describes her day-to-day work as a curator at the Justice & Police Museum as ‘daunting, sometimes unsettling and often unnerving – all in all, a dream come true’. Spending her days in the shady world of spivs and schemers, criminals and crime fighters, villains and victims, she deals in ‘the flipside of sunny Sydney’.
The ominous building in which she works, the old water police station overlooking Circular Quay, is a fitting place to tell hair-raising stories. ‘From the grim holding cells and charge counter to the stern grandeur of the courts’, Nerida suggests, ‘there’s this overwhelming sense of power … the architecture not only speaks to you, it orders you to “behave, be quiet, sit up straight”’.
University studies in the concept of deviance, spanning genders and cultures, strengthened an interest in criminality that dates back to her earliest memories: ‘When I was three, my favourite story was this bloodthirsty tale “Old Yirbaik-baik and her dingoes” from the book Gulpilil’s stories of the dreamtime. It’s about an Aboriginal woman whose savage dogs captured men for her to eat. Strange as it sounds, I was obsessed with it … Mum read it to me every night!’
A museum internship in 1997 cataloguing records and artefacts held in the Justice & Police Museum’s vast crime and policing collection brought her face to face with a letter that ‘Sydney poisoner’ Louisa Collins wrote in Darlinghurst Gaol in 1889. Nerida recalls the excitement of that discovery: ‘I was absolutely in awe, it was such a thrill. Stories I’d devoured in true-crime novels and old tabloids came to life in front of me, right there in my hands’.
For Nerida it’s more than just paperwork, the trial proceedings and charge sheets, or the mountains of crime-scene photographs and mug shots. There are hoards of evidence files detailing how the lives of ordinary Sydneysiders were up-ended by evil, tragedy or just plain bad luck. There are also death masks of notorious criminals, confiscated bongs and a chilling stockpile of weapons – knuckledusters, razors and rifles to name a few.
More powerful still are the commonplace objects housed at the museum: the garden shovel used by William ‘Mad Dog’ Moxley in 1932 to bury his murder victims at Moorebank, or the photograph of an apple – spiral peeled and lovingly rewrapped – found in the lunch box belonging to Graeme Thorne, the eight-year-old Bondi schoolboy who was kidnapped and murdered in 1960 during a ransom attempt that went tragically wrong.
Nerida explains, ‘these stories are as much about the victims as the survivors. In the wake of violent crime, the families and friends have to go on living and deal with the impact, which rarely fades over time’.
So what’s next for Nerida?
Currently, I’ve been working on two great projects, both featuring treasures from our vaults. One’s an exhibition on notorious crooks who crossed paths with the Justice & Police Museum and the other is an exhibition on the dying art of safe breaking involving some very tricky problem-solving of its own. It seems our most successful safe breaker, Richard Reynolds, was never convicted of safe robbery. Amazingly, he never got caught in the act. Now that’s what I call an art.
Nerida has spent more than ten years working with the crime collection at the Justice & Police Museum and now also curates at the Museum of Sydney and Susannah Place Museum.