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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.

By Marc Fisher |  May 19, 2008; 8:04 AM ET
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Reminds me of the museum once mentioned but not seen (yet) on The Simpsons: "The Museum of Sadness & Oppression."

I'll never pay that kind of cash for entry into the Spy Museum, the Newseum, or this new one - pretty steep for a family of four, especially in a town with so many free museums. But I assume these primarily draw tourists - aargh, it's almost high season for them again on Metro.

Finally, what's so bad about fictional elements in a museum display when clearly labeled as such? Several Smithsonian museums have included such displays (permanent or temporary) for a long time.

Posted by: mischa goss | May 19, 2008 9:51 AM

I just wanted to say when I read about this this morning, my first thought was... why would I want to pay 18 dollars to see crime and punishment. Then it was, why would I even want to see crime and punishment in a museum.
Think I'm going to put this one up on the no visit list along with the Newseum. However, in case of the newseum, if it was like 5 bucks or less to get in then I'd give it a go. More than 10 bucks for admission and you are pushing me... I will not be madam tussaud-ed again.

Posted by: Robbo | May 19, 2008 1:40 PM

Oh yeah, if I was a parent, I don't think I'd be very inclined to take my kids to the Crime and Punishment museum, but who knows maybe there are lots of parents who want their kids to see that.

Posted by: Robbo | May 19, 2008 1:54 PM

This is fitting for a society where more than 1% of the population is incarcerated. --Which is the most of any country on Earth!!!!

This is spooky and repulsive. Glorifying murderers does nothing but convince people "maybe that's a good idea!"

If they have to do this -- how about calling it "Crime and Reform" or "Crime and Its Prevention"? Punishment isn't a nice concept. It's a slippery slope when we think in terms of punishing others. Preventing the causes of crime is a better plan. But that gets deeper than the Ripley's theme.

Posted by: Washington, DC | May 19, 2008 3:14 PM

In a few years there will be a true museum representing law enforcement and corrections' officers in the U.S. The National Law Enforcement Museaum will be built accross from the current National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. Take a look at the website to see the difference between an attraction and a museum.

Posted by: Tom Wilkins | May 19, 2008 4:42 PM

Although the Tower of London was formerly a prison, that's not why people visit. They go because that's where the British crown jewels are. This guy sounds like just another huckster specializing in half truths (which actually might make him a perfect fit for this region).

Posted by: Kevin | May 19, 2008 4:51 PM

$18 to see something I could watch every Saturday night on America's Most Wanted? HA, you've got to be joking. That's like the ridiculous cost of movies today when they are only getting worse, not better.

The idea behind this circus is as lame as that of the Newseum. Why pay so much for something that usually comes free anyways (and half of it is fabricated)?

These attractions only bring in more tourists and make DC look like a giant theme park. What a shame the city officials are stooping this low to bring in more people. This kind of place belongs in Vegas or Planet Hollywood.

Posted by: David | May 20, 2008 8:36 AM

The Museum of Crime and Punishment does not seem to be accredited by the American Association of Museums, and is not a member (not needed for accreditation).
The Newseum and Spy Museum aren't either. The National Law Enforcement Museum is an AAM member.

Posted by: Mike Licht | May 20, 2008 8:55 AM

London also has at least two or three Victorian era prison museums that are popular attractions, the best known being the "Klink," located on the south bank not far from the Tower.

Posted by: Virginia | May 20, 2008 8:59 AM

Just another example of the dumbing down of America.

Posted by: foggy bottom | May 20, 2008 9:17 AM

There is a torture museum in Amsterdam. Or is is Haarlem?

Posted by: Stick | May 20, 2008 3:10 PM

I am Canadian,and therefore no stranger to Hockey and beer.I have been arrested several times for public intoxication,and hooliganism.Would any of the reports of these infractions be of interest to the museum as a potential exhibit?If so,where should I send the necessary documentation depicting these events?

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Posted by: gu5ekyp92d | May 28, 2008 8:17 PM

Folks, we're talking about an attraction -- entertainment. Surely, there is some educational value associated with the Crime & Pun Museum, but the purpose of the museum appears to be for entertainment. I'm trying to see why this is a bad purpose? As defined by the International Council of Museums, a "museum" is a "permanent institution in the service of society and of its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment, for the purposes of education, study, and enjoyment." Did you read that? ENJOYMENT. This museum will draw tourists to DC. That's what we want! More tourist = More money for the City! If you don't agree with the philosophy behind the museum, don't go. We're talking about entertainment and enjoyment. Come on DC, stop taking yourselves so seriously. It's really that simple.

Posted by: PMB | May 29, 2008 10:17 AM

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