By Philip Kennicott
Friday, February 19, 2010; C03
Even under a thin, black shroud, the lines of a vintage '68 Volkswagen Beetle were unmistakable.
And when the cloth came off, at a bizarre unveiling ceremony Thursday at the National Museum of Crime & Punishment, it took work to be surprised by what was underneath it: an unprepossessing tan Beetle, with a sunroof, looking a little worse for wear with touches of rust, fading paint and a few missing pieces of metal trim.
The tires looked as if they still had a few thousand good miles in them. Inside the cab, the interior had that quintessential old Bug smell -- like burning latex -- as if the rubber flooring was always smoking a little from the heat underneath.
But this wasn't any Beetle. This was Ted Bundy's Beetle, the car into which he lured his victims and in which he killed many of them during a terrifying serial killing spree in the 1970s.
"This was kind of like a death wagon," said Wyndell C. Watkins Sr., a retired D.C. police deputy chief, who was on hand to help introduce the latest iconic celebrity murder object joining Washington's museum collections.
The car has been stored in a private collection owned by New York-based Arthur Nash, who owns many of the most grisly objects on display in the museum's main exhibition. Also from the Nash collection: clown and serial killer John Wayne Gacy's painter's box, on display in a room dealing with the unseemly "murderabilia" trade.
Bundy's VW replaces the 1933 Essex-Terraplane car used as a getaway vehicle by John Dillinger. With Dillinger's car shipped off to the Southwest terminal of Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, where it will help present the capital region's best face to visitors, the crime museum needed a marquee object to grace its front lobby.
Of all of the notorious cars in the world -- the white Ford Bronco that O.J. Simpson rode in, the D.C. snipers' shabby Chevy Caprice retrofitted with gun placements -- Bundy's Bug may be the most notorious because it was so intimately connected to its owner's crimes. Bundy killed in this car is the frisson you're supposed to feel when looking at something that was not just a tool, but a container for death.
Compared with the D.C. snipers' car, on display at the Newseum, Bundy's VW has the edge of authenticity. The snipers' car is a mock-up, used at trial, not the actual vehicle from which John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo hunted their victims.
The Bundy car, with a brittle and faded 1976 Utah vehicle inspection sticker (No. 264924) still stuck to its dirty and cracked windshield, was not just the site of murder, but part of the strange, all-American charm and innocence that helped Bundy coerce women to get fatally close to him. It was advertising for a man who made himself an avatar of a free and unfettered age.
But it doesn't belong in a museum. Which is why Thursday's unveiling included some weirdly incongruous preaching from museum officials and others gathered to mark its unnecessary display before a bored and jaded public.
"We want to use it as a safety precaution," said Janine Vaccarello, chief operating officer of the privately owned museum (its partners include John Walsh, host of TV's "America's Most Wanted"). The museum, which opened in May 2008, announced the unveiling with a news release headlined: "Ted Bundy VW Beetle Serves as New Teaching Tool."
"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 Cézannes 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.