A new D.C. museum celebrates the cloudy pursuit of law and order.
The National Museum of Crime and Punishment opened in Washington, D.C., two weeks ago with McGruff the Crime Dog greeting guests outside the entrance. The museum (which was financed by an Orlando lawyer and produced in conjunction with the Fox TV show America’s Most Wanted) strives to bring interactivity and entertainment to a museum about crime. I visited on a soft opening day, and then again the next day for the grand opening, the major difference between these days being that on grand opening day, McGruff high-fived me at the door, John Walsh of America’s Most Wanted was rumored to be in the building, and entrance was free for all law enforcement officers.
Both days, though, were united by the strange tonal shifts one experiences when one engages in silly fun, reads random factoids, and is then admonished occasionally by a but-seriously-people, predators-might-eat-your-children’s-heads-if-you-don’t-watch-out type of display. The un-Smithsonian-like tone began with McGruff at the door and continued in the queue made of a chain of handcuffs, which lead to ticket sellers dressed in orange prisoner’s outfits selling tickets at the un-Smithsonian-like price of $17.95 plus tax.
The first visible wall panel inside the entry gate read, “Every 22.2 seconds a violent crime is committed in the United States.” In the stairway leading up to the main floor, flat-screen televisions that hung from the ceiling ran a video montage of real footage mixed with reenactments. Actors robbing a bank cut to a toe tag on a corpse, cut to to O.J. Simpson on trial which cut to the Supreme Court.
The walls were painted black and the steps were metal, and as I climbed to the first floor of the museum, a man with a deep, deeply assured voice announced over the montage, “Sometimes it’s overwhelming. It seems we can never stop crime, but fortunately we can always stop criminals. In a nation of laws, we the people do have the right to tell criminals what not to do. There’s nothing confusing about it. A crime is what it is: a crime.”
By the time I reached the first floor on soft opening day, I understood this was a museum, but one inspired by TV. From the press packet I understood that America’s Most Wanted was going to be filmed in the basement, but what I didn’t know before I arrived and climbed the steps was that the museum itself was going to be curated like TV, selling a simple “us” versus “them” concept of crime.
The first visible artifact at the top of the stairs was a head cage. I read that it was from “ancient times” and used to hold heads still for gauging eyes out and facial branding. A PR woman said, “The museum starts in Europe because that’s where we’re all from.” We being Americans.
In another glass case, in Medieval Times, was a funnel for pouring fetid water down a criminal’s throat. A placard read, “Quite often the nostrils of the victim were pinched shut leaving the sufferer no choice but to gasp for air, which only resulted in inhaling more water causing “near drowning” — “near drowning,” and not “drowning” being what occurred in dungeons and prisons in the Middle Ages, according to a museum in the capital of a nation debating whether or not to waterboard.
The museum progressed from Medieval Times to Colonial Times, to Pirates, to the Wild West, to the Great Depression Era, to the Mob. Crime relics were mixed seamlessly with Hollywood relics, and in a phrase that sounded practiced in order to confront bad press about mixing real crime relics with Hollywood ones, the PR woman pointed out that Bonnie and Clyde’s car was from the movie Bonnie and Clyde, but that the bullet holes in the car were real bullet holes. A photo of Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty hung near the car. Bonnie’s poetry and change found in the real car were displayed in a glass case. The PR woman also mentioned that in the Wild West section, the shooting gallery was the only up-sell in the museum and was, “just like a shooting gallery at any carnival.
It was difficult to hold my ground and actually read the material in the Colonial Times section while one voice actor kept repeating that for the crime of drunkenness, he had his nostrils slit, and another repeated that for using the Lord’s name in vain, he had his tongue wrought through with a hot iron rung. They were so whiney and repetitious that at the end of my visit I had come to believe that 1) the viewer was not meant to read all the information on the walls in this section, but instead was supposed to take a photo of himself in the stocks and move on, and 2) maybe the voice actors deserved the punishments.
From the Colonial Times section I moved through the Pirate section to the Wild West section. Billy the Kid was described as handsome, which I just can’t go down on record as agreeing with. To me his chin looked too large, his eyes uneven and his teeth and ears funky.
On opening day, off-duty police officers came to the museum out of uniform, but certainly not undercover. Their interest in the gun displays gave them away. Also they wore clothes like they usually wore uniforms: shorts when shorts were not really called for, with deeply tucked-in shirts held tight to their waists with belts, and some of them comfortably carrying things like cameras and sunglass attached out of habit to those belts. They had shorter hair and more mustaches than the general public and didn’t react out loud to displays, except for the guns. “Look at this,” one obvious law enforcement agent on his day off said about a gun near the Bonnie and Clyde exhibit, and another obvious law enforcement officer on his day off said, “Cool, cool.”
In the Heist section of the museum, visitors stopped to have their picture taken next to a small photo of Leonardo DiCaprio on a larger photo of the criminal he played in Catch Me If You Can. At one point kids tried to uncrack a toy safe called “crack-a-safe” and then gave up when they found out that they had to read directions. I watched an Indian family of three, mother and father flanking the teen daughter who answered, altogether, that: Kid Rock was arrested for assault and battery (in a Waffle House); George Clinton (Dr. Funkenstien) for possession of illegal substances; James Brown (at 70) for assault and battery; Stone Cold Steve Austin for (what else but) assault and battery; and adorable, bumbling Hugh Grant for lewd conduct. The family was doing quite well until they came to Mick Jagger. The daughter looked at her father for guidance, but he didn’t know. It was a toughie. They were going to have to guess (answer: assault and battery).
In the Heist room jazz music that sounded like the “Pink Panther Theme” played overhead. I walked over to a wall I had just skimmed the day before and read the Texas A&M shooter’s letter of testimony, in which he described shooting his mother because his father treated her like a common slut, and it was the only way he thought he could end her suffering. Something in my stomach sank. The Pink Panthery jazz continued on, and the Indian family was giggling over Lindsay Lohan’s DUI arrest and how orange she looked in her mug shot.
|John Wayne Gacy's clown paints.
But even the things that interested visitors, didn’t do so for long. I saw several people over the course of two days press a button under an enormous photo of a serial killer and then walk away before the narrator had finished his first sentence. I pressed a button under an overblown black and white photo of the Virginia Tech shooter’s face in a row of more traditional serial killer portraits and the voice began, “We all have ways of blowing off steam, but...” I walked away, not exactly out of a disinterest in the details of the horrific, but rather out of exhaustion with overblown delivery and glib writing.
I am ashamed to say that I like TV shows about serial killers when I’m feeling down, and when I walked to a kiosk with a test called Evil in Our Midst: Serial Killers I scored a 16/19. The game literally trivialized serial killers, and at one point I saw a woman playing it with a latte in one hand. I think most of us are used to the faces of serial killers in our houses on a little screen, and we listen to their stories while we work on our nonexistent abs or our nutritionally insufficient dinner, and their lives tell us privately that things could always be much, much worse. When I turn off a show on serial killers I feel like my life might have its low points, but at least my brother is not a cannibal, and aren’t I lucky. That’s a feeling I usually keep kind of private though, and not one I would base a sermon around.
I moved on to a game on a kiosk that asked, “Can you hack it?” in the Silent Criminals section. It was a simulation — I tried to send out spam to get others to write back so I could involve them in some sort of scam. It was a boring and lame game and seemed like an even more boring and lamer crime.
On an opposing wall, there were jokes with cartoons about dumb criminals. The only one I could bring myself to read was about a criminal who grabbed a hotdog from a rotisserie at the convenience store he was robbing and choked on it in the parking lot. It was unclear if he choked to death. I never saw anyone laugh at this wall in the two days I walked by it, and I saw very few law enforcement agents look at it at all. I’m sure they have their own funny and not-so-funny stories about criminals on substances.
In the afternoon of the second day, a family of red-headed kids took over the booking room to get their fingerprints taken. One called out to his mom, “Mom, I’m wanted for contempt of court,” which has got to be the happiest way that sentence has ever been uttered. I played around with a display at a child’s height that read “Having secrets with people who I have only met online is” a. Risky b. Safe C. Boring. I would have guessed C. Boring, but I knew what the museum’s stance on strangers was, so I picked A. Risky.
It was also obvious what the museum’s stance on the death penalty was. An electric chair called Old Smokey, in which 125 people had been killed in Tennessee, was set up next to to a fake gas chamber in one room. There were sound effects as gas was released into the chamber, and I got a chill, but not because I was feeling anything other than mild disgust and awe at the lapse in judgment and taste of the people that put this museum together. I looked up. The chill was from a cold air vent blasting air down on me.
While waiting for a turn to drive a police car simulator, I told a little girl and her sister how an infrared video camera worked because the girls were explaining it to each other backwards. And at first they looked at me as if I was a stranger capable of endangering them in the midst of the museum. Then they realized that I was right, (the PR woman had shown it to me the day before) and the girls started to talk to me. “Look how hot your hands are,” one said to me because they showed up on the video screen totally white. “Look how cold your ponytail is,” I said because it showed up black. I almost never have bad exchanges with strangers. Often C. Boring ones, but almost never a bad or dangerous exchange.
During the police chase driving game I couldn’t get out of the habit of using my signal, and I noticed that the girl with a ponytail was driving more like a cop than I was. In the SWAT team simulation I invaded a suburban house and shot and killed a man and woman in their bedrooms. The woman fell over on her face with a thud and the screen flashed “Scenario Complete!” It was very satisfying, in that way that winning any game is. I passed the gun back to the kid running the simulation who was dressed as a convict, and I wondered why I had never considered going into law enforcement. I seemed like a natural. Then I tried to do two pull-ups, the amount required to become a female police officer, and I failed. Completely. Downstairs I received six out of six on an eye witness memory test, but I would have given away one of those points to be able to do just one pull-up.
I passed through a hallway of CSI information that even I didn’t have the patience to read. I heard a man ask a woman, “Do you watch that show?”
On the soft opening day, I asked a museum worker in the morgue, dressed like a convict, why she thought the torso illustrating a bullet entry and exit wound had that round nudey mannequin mound instead of real genitalia and wore underwear. I’m not sure she was used to being held responsible for the content of the museum. “I guess they don’t know how old the kids will be that come, so they don’t want them to see anything offensive,” she said.
| A mannequin shot "dead" in the
After passing an exhibit on famous unsolved crimes — JonBenet Ramsey, Nicole Brown Simpon, Tupac, and Notorious B.I.G. (“Did you know? Records released after both rappers’ deaths continue to sell well into the millions) — I moved into a room devoted to TV crime fighters. The flat-screen TV flashed a compilation: Perry Mason, Charlie’s Angels, Zorro, the pregnant cop from Fargo. I watched a man take out his phone and snap a photo of a photo of Chuck Norris as Walker, Texas Ranger; his shirt was tucked in deep, but I couldn’t quite tell if he was a law enforcement officer or not. Following that, I entered a room that taught about about drinking and driving (briefly), home security, and suggested old people be equipped with a button around their neck so they could call for help.
On the basement set of America’s Most Wanted, there was a documentary about the series, shown back-to-back with a film of equal length containing the best of America’s Most Wanted bloopers. When visitors hit a nearby button, a makeup mirror surrounded in lights turned into a video screen and John Walsh answered questions like, “After your son Adam was murdered you became a child advocate. Is that why you started America’s Most Wanted?” And John Walsh came on screen with less bravado than normal, and in less leather, and gave sincere answers that made him seem likable and his mission— to use TV and publicity to fight violent crime — understandable.
On the afternoon of day two I returned to the beginning of the exhibits and found the real John Walsh in the Pirate section pointing out pirate flags to a friend. I asked if I could take a photo of him, and he suggested we take one together. He put his arm around me. There wasn’t time to talk to him about the possible root causes of most crime, like poverty and institutionalized racism, and I could almost hear in the entryway the totally assured male voice repeating, “There’s nothing confusing about it. A crime is what it is: a crime.”
That’s not my experience. My experience with criminals is far less tragic than John Walsh's. I’ve had a few friends and relatives who have done some time, ultimately because they struggled with addiction and/or mental illness. I have on a few occasions picked out books at Border’s to send to them in jail, and I found even that simple task confusing. I tried to pick out books that were entertaining so they could escape for a while, but also ones that might make a person — even a criminal — feel connected to the rest of humanity.
But when John Walsh shook my hand he winked, and I decided I liked him. He looked good in a blue suit jacket, using his normal voice, and it was hard not to like a famous person who winked. • 12 June 2008
When Emily Maloney is not traveling the globe, she lives at home with her mom in Oregon. Her column Emily's World appears on The Smart Set regularly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.