Line Between Reality and Fantasy Blurs Uneasily at Crime Museum

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By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, May 20, 2008

T he new National Museum of Crime & Punishment, which opens Friday across 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. It's even produced in cooperation with the long-running Fox hit "America's Most Wanted," which will be taped in the museum's basement television studio.

The museum is more fun than annoying. But not by terribly much.

For $18 (plus tax) a ticket, visitors get 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 facts and cool finds that tells no coherent or compelling story but serves a promotional goal and seeks a "Gee, Martha, look at this" response from the casual visitor.

The crime museum -- created by Orlando lawyer John Morgan, who also owns an attraction near Disney World that consists of an upside-down mansion called WonderWorks -- owes much to the National Museum of the American Indian. That museum operates, 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 at which you will feel as if you have stepped into the "America's Most Wanted" booth at a broadcasters convention. But at its best, the museum reaches almost to the level of the International Spy Museum, the downtown D.C. destination that is the immediate inspiration for Morgan's decision to house his latest attraction in Washington.

Morgan got the idea for a museum of crime after trying to visit the island prison of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay, 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," he says, "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."

A museum 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 bank robber John Dillinger's getaway car, paintings by mass murderer John Wayne Gacy and a machine gun 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 & Punishment assumes it won't matter 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 away was not used by the real-life bank robbers; rather, it's the one used by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in the movie about the bank robbers.

I could have done without Gacy's paint box or a superficial bio of Seung Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter. But the museum has its cool, and even chilling, bits. Here's the Bakelite switchblade recovered from the Boston Strangler at his death. Here's Bill Gates's police booking photo from when he was nabbed for running a stop sign in 1977. Here's Frank Sinatra's mug shot from his 1938 arrest on charges of "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 popular, 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.)

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 asked to recall details about what you've just seen, you realize just how lousy human memory can be.

Still, maybe I'm just too caught up in the distinction between reality and fantasy, but when the Cold Cases exhibits on Nicole Brown Simpson, Chandra Levy, the Tylenol murders and the anthrax attacks blend right into 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 number one tourist attraction in London is the Tower of London. People are fascinated by crime. I can't explain it."

That much is obvious.

E-mail:marcfisher@washpost.com


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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