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Ted Bundy's VW goes on display at D.C. crime museum, but should it?

"We don't recommend hitchhiking to anyone," echoed Watkins, who summed up the car's didactic power this way: "This car represents a warning sign that you have to be careful."

The warnings and putative lessons seem oddly insubstantial compared with the lurid fascination of the car, as if the moral of the Titanic saga is "dress warm and always wear a life preserver." But these lessons are absolutely essential to the display of Bundy's car, because without them, it is almost indistinguishable from the murderabilia racket.

Curiously, if you pay the $12 to $20 it costs to get into the main exhibition space of the museum, you'll find a relatively well-presented panel documenting the murderabilia trade, the buying and selling of objects directly connected to infamous crimes. Objects associated with Bundy have always been hot in the trade, including a hubcap from Bundy's VW that was reportedly offered for sale for a starting bid of $3,500 in 2007.

The museum does a fair job of explaining the "passionate debate" about this strange economy of artifacts that enrages families of murder victims even as it thrives on the Internet. Is it an ugly, final exploitation of the victims and families? Or a long-standing, morally neutral trade in objects that have always exerted a dark fascination?

But no matter what you think of the murderabilia trade -- it has probably done less harm than trade in complex derivatives -- it's very difficult to distinguish making a profit selling murderabilia from making a profit displaying murderabilia. The museum has leased Bundy's car from Nash, and although one can see it for free in the lobby of the museum, it is a lure to sell tickets, and it is hardly the only object in the museum that qualifies as murderabilia.

Except, of course, that by being on display in a museum, murderabilia objects are magically transformed from suspect status into museum pieces with the power to teach.

That's a sleight of hand, and almost as risible as an attempt to claim that pornography changes status if you use it to teach basic anatomy (thigh bone connected to the hip bone). But the commercial museum business needs new products to keep visitors moving through the doors. The supposed academic or didactic value of many pieces on display is an obvious fiction. And when your kids are sick of looking at old C├ęzannes for free at the National Gallery of Art, of course it's tempting to silence their complaints and continue their "education" with a pilgrimage to the Bundy car.

So the car has rolled into town -- it attracted crowds on Seventh Street as it was being loaded into the museum's front gallery -- only to cause more mayhem. This time, it's mayhem in the museum world. Or it should be. Because only the professional museum community has the status and gravity to call out tawdry attempts to pass off displays such as this as educational.

A sharp and public rebuke from serious museum professionals would be salutary: It would help the public make clearer distinctions between serious museums and the rapidly evolving world of commercial museum-entertainment attractions. It would force a serious dialogue about the educational value of displaying objects purely for their iconic status, a form of intellectual laziness that afflicts the Smithsonian as much as the crime museum.

And it might help real museums make a better case for their survival in a world in which every aspect of their identity, with the exception of real educational value, has been hijacked by hucksters.

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