Suspicious Looking: 19th century mug shots from the New Zealand Police Museum

Mug shots are photographic portraits of arrested suspects and convicted criminals. Since the mid-19th century, they have been used to help form a record of identification for police. However, they are far from being mundane bits of police paperwork. Rather, mug shots are intriguing images which have a powerful ability to captivate our imaginations. Perhaps this is because of the interesting questions they evoke: What crime did this person commit? Were they guilty? Do they look like a criminal? Do they look normal? What happened to them?

Using the New Zealand Police Museum’s collection of mug shots from 1886-1908, this exhibition will start to answer some of these questions, and explore the stories behind these compelling photographs. From the people in the images, to the history of mug shots, to the role of criminal identification in New Zealand Police, these mug shots can provide a window to many fascinating stories of the past.

Photo of Branding Joseph Relph in the Old Bailey

Criminal Identification before mug shots

Today there are many techniques which police use to identify criminals. However, before these modern techniques were discovered, law enforcers relied on simpler methods of criminal identification ... more

Daguerreotype of prisoner

The invention of mug shots

The invention of photography in the first half of the 19th century heralded a new process of criminal identification for police ... more

The introduction of mug shots in New Zealand

The New Zealand Police Force was officially established on 1 September 1886, and they began collecting photographs of prisoners that same year ... more

Photo of a woman and mug shot of Archibald Bell Campbell

Criticisms of mug shot photography

Although the use of photography for criminal identification seemed so promising in the beginning, police all around the world soon realised that it had severe limitations ... more

Galton portraits

Physiognomy, Photography and the criminal look

Although mug shots alone failed to provide a reliable system of criminal identification in the 19th century, some tried to find alternative uses of mug shot photography ... more

Bertillon measurements photos

Beyond mug shots: Other methods of criminal identification in the 19th century

At the end of the 19th century, two important systems of identification emerged which would assist in proving identity: fingerprinting and the Bertillon method ... more

Photo of Di Brunton

Mug shots in New Zealand today

What happens with mug shots in New Zealand Police today? What has changed since the 19th century? Di Brunton, Supervisor of Fingerprinting and Image Management for the New Zealand Police has answers ... more

Mug shot photo pf Louis Chemis

Selected Biographies: Famous Faces & Sensational Stories

Discover the personal stories behind a selection of mug shots from the New Zealand Police Museum ... more