DC's Newest Museum: Crime & Punishment
The new Museum of Crime and Punishment, which opens Friday across the street from the Abe Pollin Arena and the National Portrait Gallery, is another in Washington's growing supply of museums that aspire to be a blend of theme park and TV show. In fact, it's even produced in cooperation with the long-running Fox hit, "America's Most Wanted," which will now be taped in the museum's basement TV studio.
The museum is more fun than annoying. But not by terribly much.
An $18 ticket that promises visitors the opportunity to shoot a gun, drive a police cruiser and appear in a police lineup, the crime museum is to the Smithsonian as "America's Most Wanted" is to "Frontline." Well, let's modify that: There is one branch of the Smithsonian that shares the crime museum's approach--an almost random collection of stray facts and cool finds that tells no coherent or compelling story, but aims only to elicit a "Gee, Martha, look at this" response from the casual visitor.
The crime museum, a for-profit business owned by an Orlando lawyer whose previous experience in the museum biz is an attraction near Disney World that consists of an upside-down mansion called Wonderworks, owes much to the decision by the National Museum of the American Indian to operate, as I wrote when it opened four years ago, "like a trade show in which each group of Indians gets space to sell its founding myth and favorite anecdotes of survival."
There are many points in the three-story Crime museum where you will feel as if you have stepped into the "America's Most Wanted" booth at a broadcasters convention or a feel-good exhibit of industrial wares at a police officers convention. But at its best, the museum reaches almost to the level of the International Spy Museum, the downtown D.C. attraction that is the immediate inspiration for Orlando businessman John Morgan's decision to put his latest attraction in Washington.
"The type of visitor you get here is more educated, more inquisitive," says Morgan, a personal injury lawyer who also builds hotels. "And I was very impressed with the success of the Spy Museum."
Morgan got the idea for a museum of crime after trying to visit the island prison of Alcatraz in San Francisco, only to find that tickets were sold out eight days in advance. "I slipped the guy a couple of hundred bucks and he let me on the boat, and I realized, if America is so enthralled with crime that they'd book eight days out to see an empty prison, that's something pretty strong."
"Take crime off TV and you'd be left with 'Deal or No Deal' and 'Jeopardy,'" he quips.
A museum of crime that explored why this culture is so fascinated with bad boys could be a rich and rewarding place. But this museum is satisfied to show off artifacts such as John Dillinger's getaway car, paintings by mass murderer John Wayne Gacy and a machine gun actually used by Al Pacino in the 1983 movie "Scarface," and leave the whys and wherefores to some college sociology class.
Did you catch that last bit about Pacino? The Museum of Crime and Punishment assumes it won't matter in the least to visitors that some of its artifacts are the real thing and some are the Hollywood version. The Dillinger car is real, but the Bonnie and Clyde car a couple of rooms later is not the one used by the real-life bank robbers; rather, it's the one used by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in the movie about the real-life bank robbers.
This sort of thing happens again and again in the museum, and the distinction is sometimes mentioned in the text accompanying the artifacts, and sometimes not. So there are movie clips sprinkled throughout the place, and some of the exhibits on infamous bad guys--for example, one featuring Frank Abagnale, the con man celebrated in Steven Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can"--seem to be driven more by our collective knowledge of the movies than by any rendering of which criminals were most influential or notorious. The museum's curator, Paul Burns, came from Ripley's, and like much of the staff here, is grounded more in the world of attractions than the world of museums.
I could have done without seeing Gacy's paintbox or listening to an overly dramatic narrative providing a superficial scan of Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter. But the museum has its cool, and even some chilling, bits. Here's the Bakelite switchblade recovered from the Boston Strangler at his death. Here's Bill Gates' police booking photo from when he was nabbed for running a stop sign in 1977. Here's Frank Sinatra's mugshot from his 1938 arrest for "seduction," or carrying on with a married woman.
You can sit inside a jail cell, test yourself on a lie detector, check out Al Capone's super-comfy prison cell (but beware--it's a re-creation, or don't you care?), and, in the section on capital punishment, gawk at Tennessee's Old Smokey electric chair (real) and a gas chamber (fake).
The police cruiser simulator (the real thing) will be a popular feature--you can train on the video s that police academies use--and so will the shoot/don't shoot simulator, on which I killed a civilian during a police search of a house. (I'm probably wrong, but I think I was justified--she pulled a gun on me as I turned into her room.)
The museum uses video cleverly. There's a splendid demonstration of how shaky eyewitness testimony can be--you're asked to take special note of a video of a bad guy at the scene of a crime, and two minutes later, when you're then asked to recall details about what you've just seen, you realize just how lousy human memory can be.
Still, I'm sorry and maybe I'm just too caught up in the distinction between reality and fantasy, but when the Cold Cases room of exhibits on Nicole Brown Simpson, Chandra Levy, the Tylenol murders and the anthrax attacks blends right into the displays on the Mod Squad, Ironside, Miami Vice and Kojak, I am more bothered than thrilled.
"There are two kinds of newspapers," Morgan says by way of explaining the approach of his museum. "I'm giving people the USA Today version--the high points. I can't be the Financial Times or The Washington Post. The #1 tourist attraction in London is the Tower of London. People are fascinated by crime. I can't explain it."
That much is obvious.
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: mischa goss | May 19, 2008 9:51 AM
Posted by: Robbo | May 19, 2008 1:40 PM
Posted by: Robbo | May 19, 2008 1:54 PM
Posted by: Washington, DC | May 19, 2008 3:14 PM
Posted by: Tom Wilkins | May 19, 2008 4:42 PM
Posted by: Kevin | May 19, 2008 4:51 PM
Posted by: David | May 20, 2008 8:36 AM
Posted by: Mike Licht | May 20, 2008 8:55 AM
Posted by: Virginia | May 20, 2008 8:59 AM
Posted by: foggy bottom | May 20, 2008 9:17 AM
Posted by: Stick | May 20, 2008 3:10 PM
Posted by: J.Wadd | May 27, 2008 12:59 AM
Posted by: yio6ck1p9w | May 28, 2008 8:16 PM
Posted by: gu5ekyp92d | May 28, 2008 8:17 PM
Posted by: PMB | May 29, 2008 10:17 AM
The comments to this entry are closed.