From exhibits to Exhibit A

28th June 2013 at 01:00
Museums are increasingly offering the services of their forensic scientists to aid police in criminal investigations

A museum might seem an unlikely first port of call for police, customs and other authorities in the fight against murder, invasive parasites or the smuggling of exotic animals.

But Britain's museums, better known for lending exhibits, are increasingly loaning the expertise of their forensic specialists to the wider world - a move that also raises funds for the institutions.

In London, England, the Natural History Museum's 300 or so scientists and researchers made #163;611,000 from consultancy services last year. Other renowned academic institutions are following suit but the Natural History Museum has arguably had the greatest success.

It has contracts with London's Metropolitan Police, and its two forensic science laboratories allow its experts to offer crime-fighting services, including forensic entomology, forensic botany and forensic anthropology.

Your students may be surprised to learn that maggots and other insects found in and around a corpse are useful aids to determining time of death. But as this information is high on the "yuck" factor, they are also likely to find it grimly fascinating, making it a great way to introduce topics such as criminology and the history of forensics.

Amoret Whitaker, an entomologist at the Natural History Museum, has helped police on a number of investigations. She told UK newspaper The Independent about a recent case in which she helped to determine whether a carpet had been discarded because of an insect infestation or for more suspicious reasons.

"Police wanted to know if a carpet which had been thrown out had had a big flea infestation, as was claimed by its owners, who kept dogs. I took a mini-vacuum cleaner to their home," she said. "The indications were that there had not been a large infestation.

"After the police put this to the people concerned, it turned out that their son had killed a person and he was charged with murder."

On another occasion, the museum entomology team was able to establish that the time of death for a man who had been missing for three months was at least two and a half months before his body was discovered - not, as a pathologist had estimated, two to three weeks.


Brought to justice

Most people have an innate sense of what is right and wrong. But when it comes to the law, this can be complicated by privacy and human rights issues.

Give students fictional case studies of crimes. Take Tatiana, for example, a member of extremist group GlobalRevolution, who has been apprehended along with other key players before they can carry out an attack on a British city centre.

Tatiana is 18. She has been held for 30 days without charge but has been subject to repeated interrogation. A sample of her DNA has been taken but she maintains that she was not a senior figure within the group. She is charged with a number of offences under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005.

Set up a role play of the court case: students must decide what sentence Tatiana should receive and why. Expand the lesson by asking students what they think about collecting fingerprints and DNA before a person has been charged with a crime.

For more case study ideas, see Adam Hall's sentencing resource on the TES Connect website. bit.lySentencing

Class questions

How can maggots help scientists to accurately calculate time of death?

How important is forensic science in a police investigation?

What are the origins of modern forensic science? When did it begin and in what country?

Why would the expertise of scientists employed by museums be useful to police and other organisations?


Catch the killer

19th-century serial killer Jack the Ripper - infamous for murdering women and removing their vital organs - has entered the realm of British folklore, not least because he was never caught.

Butchers, surgeons and physicians were suspected of being the murderer because of his methods. More than 2,000 people were interviewed, more than 300 investigated and 80 detained, yet still the killer eluded capture. Could he have done so if the police had had access to modern-day forensics?

When Jack the Ripper was on the prowl in Whitechapel, East London, in 1888, forensic material was collected but police were limited to studying the killer's distinctive methods, the handwriting of various letters that were allegedly sent by him and witness accounts that were often contradictory.

Why not get your students to consider how modern forensics might have been used to catch Jack the Ripper? If these ghastly crimes took place today, what forensic evidence would police be able to gather in order to narrow down the search for the murderer?

Related resources

Turn your students into crime scene investigators with this resource pack from alexharrison101. bit.lyforensicsunit

Who was Jack the Ripper? Find out in Miss R's introductory lesson.


Delve into the world of forensic entomology and find out how to use insects to calculate time of death.



Dissecting the data

Are your students interested in forensics or in looking at what science and statistics can tell us about the world?

The latest issue of Big Picture magazine is about "number crunching" - for example, different ways of presenting the results of experiments, and how statistics can be used to understand and interpret data.

The free magazine for post-16 teachers and students explores issues in biology and medicine and is published by UK health charity the Wellcome Trust. It is accompanied by online educational resources, including a presentation on how to draw a histogram and a short video that demonstrates how to use a chi-squared test to see if fingerprint type is related to gender.

The magazine explores how people relate to risk and probability, and debunks some statistical myths in a QA column. It also contains real examples of how statistics have been misused or misrepresented in the media, courts and advertising.

For more information, go to

Further resources

Recover evidence using physical, biological and chemical techniques in russellarnott's introduction to crime scene processing. bit.lycsprocessing

What happens when you break the law? A PowerPoint shared by samtscotland gives an overview, from statement to sentence. bit.lycrimeandthelaw

Introduce your class to the basics of news writing in TESEnglish's activity. bit.lyNewsReportWriting

EmmyCD's lesson considers how news stories are reported and why some are given more prominence than others. bit.lyNewsValues.

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