Angela Sutton-Vane

Open University

Project Title: The Material Culture of Murder Files: Police Archives as Text and Artefact

Murder is something that has a universal fascination. Murder files (if they survive) often take on a complex mantle of notoriety, memorial, relic or, if they were obtained illicitely and exchanged, hoard or commodity. They are also unique in the ethical challenges they present around access, retention and interpretation.

Murder files (like all crime files) are legal documents and in line with national policing guidelines are normally destroyed at the end of their legal lives. An exception to this are records created by the Metropolitan Police which have been classed as Public Records. However, a few slip through the net for a number of poorly understood reasons and are now stored in records offices.

My research aims to investigate the material culture of these files: how do they survive? What is their relationship with the police officers who created them and often retain them? What is the police's relationship with their own history and why do they destroy material that may be of significant historic value? This research will be undertaken against a background of questioning around current policies of destruction brought to the fore by recent events such as the Hillsborough Enquiry. Research will employ methods from history such as oral histories; social sciences, for example multisited ethnography; archive studies and material culture. I hope the research impact will be a work which will not only examine the laying down of policing history, but also question current policy and encourage good practice so that police archives remain safe for future research.

I have two very enthusiastic, supportive and relevant supervisors. My first is Dr Chris Williams, Senior Lecturer in History at the Open University and affiliated to the International Centre for the History of Crime, Policing and Justice; the International Centre for Comparative Criminological Research and the Centre for Research into Information, Surveillance and Privacy. His research interests are: all aspects of the history of crime and policing since about 1750, especially concerning British and British colonial police; the preservation of the records of British police forces; the public history of criminal justice in the UK and beyond; the relationship between history and memory; the globalisation of policing practice and the history of the control room. My second supervisor is Dr Susie West, Lecturer in Heritage Studies, Faculty of Arts at the Open University. Her relevant research intests include private libraries, material culture, heritage and memory.

Supervised by Dr Chris Williams and Dr Susie West.

About me

I'm delighted to have been offered a CHASE-funded place to do a part-time PhD at the Open University. Part-time was a really important consideration for me so that I could continue my much-loved work as Curator with the Historic Collections of Devon & Cornwall Police and continue to act as an Arts Council England mentor for small museums. I currently live in Devon and recently married my lovely husband, who is a very talented cabinet maker.

I have a first class degree in the Conservation of Artefacts and an MRes with distinction in Material Culture. I'm passionate about the work museums do and their potential role as social spaces for interactions with many key social issues - and particularly with police collections - using them to explore human rights, safety, anti-knife campaigns, anti-bullying and much more. Having suffered head injuries as a child I found education late in life and am an enthusiastic advocate for life-long learning and that research opportunities and research writing should be available and accessible to a wide audience.

Research Interests

My work for museums and collections such as the National Galleries of Scotland, the National Maritime Museum, the Horniman Museum, seasonal work for the Royal Collections at Buckingham Palace and freelance museum consultant have left me in no doubt that my niche is material culture and the way in which inanimate objects interact with animated people. Object biographies can provide crucial historical evidence over and above traditional archival material, and in a reversal of roles, archival material may be interpreted as a genre of artefact with significant life-cycles.

I follow twitter on @asuttonvane ; my blog is currently disgracefully out of date and I am ashamed of it, so I will update this space shortly!