Crime and Punishment Museum captivates

July 29, 2011

The newest exhibit at the National Museum of Crime and Punishment focuses on the Unabomber, whose explosives kept the United States on edge for almost two decades. It’s no surprise that the gallery is captivating; we’re a nation fascinated by, well, crime and punishment. Kids play cops and robbers in the back yard while teenagers quote “The Godfather” and their parents turn to HBO, enthralled by “The Sopranos.” “Law and Order” is on TV so often it’s a surprise there’s ever any other show on the air. Violence terrifies and murder repulses, yet those are the stories we watch, rapt, as they unfold on the news one gruesome detail at a time. The NMCP provides an array of artifacts, information and interactive exhibits to satisfy an insatiable desire to know more about crimes, those who commit them and those who work to solve them. Allow two to three hours to explore the five galleries: “A Notorious History of American Crime,” “Punishment: The Consequence of Crime,” “Crime Fighting,” “Crime Scene Investigation” and “ ‘America’s Most Wanted’ Studio.”

Required reading: Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was responsible for 16 attacks, three deaths and 23 injuries in 17 years. In early 1995, The Washington Post and the New York Times received a 67-page manifesto from the Unabomber promising to stop the bombings if the essay was published. After consulting with the FBI, the papers split the cost of publication, and the manifesto ran in The Post on Sept. 19, 1995. In February of the next year, the FBI got a tip from David Kaczynski, who recognized his brother’s voice and philosophy in the writing.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: Bonnie and Clyde’s car — the one in which they were killed after running from the law for years — is on display, along with background information about two of America’s most famous criminals. The car is riddled with bullet holes from the attack that took the lovers down. Clyde died instantly, but Bonnie wasn’t as lucky; the shooters heard a “long, horrified scream” emanating from the car as they continued to fire.

No, not that Cullen: In a room devoted to serial killers, visitors can learn about some of the most horrific murderers ever to strike in the United States. Charles Cullen, the former nurse who became the most prolific serial killer in history, was arrested in 2003. He showed signs of instability in early childhood, attempting suicide at 9 by drinking chemicals from a chemistry set in what was to be the first of 20 tries .

Hurrah, hurrah, Pennsylvania: The word “penitentiary” comes from the Pennsylvania Quakers, who held the conviction that salvation could be achieved through penitence and self-reflection. In 1790, the Walnut Street Prison opened in Philadelphia; it was the first U.S. penitentiary and a pioneer in prison reform. Eastern State Penitentiary, now perhaps most famous as the site of one of the best Halloween haunted houses on the East Coast, opened in 1829 and used the “Pennsylvania system” of solitary confinement as a form of rehabilitation, designed to make prisoners feel remorse.

Take a bite out of crime: McGruff, the trench-coat-wearing canine who has been baring his teeth at criminal activity since 1980, is all over the museum. Kids can keep an eye out for his questions posted throughout the exhibits about things like safety, taking candy from strangers and cyberbullying. Every now and then, McGruff himself hangs out in front of the museum. Look for him to be greeting visitors, posing for pictures and probably sweating his poor puppy face off.

Target practice: An interactive exhibit allows you to sit in the driver’s seat, surrounded by screens for total immersion, as you act the part of a police officer chasing down a runaway suspect. Test your shooting skills with the firearms training system used by FBI agents. The video simulation is footage of a real house (with real people, in case you are squeamish about violence) as you pretend to conduct a raid.

CSI: Washington: The museum knows what you’re thinking about fighting crime: “Yeah, but is it like ‘CSI’?” In an effort to address the common inquiry head-on, the museum offers its most popular exhibit, “The CSI Experience.” You begin as the unsuspecting witness to suspicious behavior, then travel to the crime scene, collect evidence and head to the crime lab. On weekends, the museum runs CSI-themed workshops. Led by forensic scientists, the hands-on activities cover evidence collection, DNA, body decomposition and basic forensics.

Removing the evidence: Visit the Cop Shop to pick up a body-outline towel, a crime scene “do not cross” scarf that resembles yellow tape, and plenty of other crime-fighting and CSI-themed wares.

National Museum of Crime and Punishment

575 Seventh St. NW. 202-393-1099. www.crimemuseum.org .
Hours: Monday-Thursday,
9 a.m.- 7 p.m.; Friday-Saturday,
9 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online
or at the gate. Adults online $18.95, gate $21.95; seniors, U.S. military
and U.S. law enforcement online $15.95, gate $16.95; children ages 5-11 $14.95; children younger than 5, free.

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