Arts & Living: Weekend Arts & Living
Worth the Price Of Admission?
BY MICHAEL O'SULLIVAN  |  MAY 23, 2008

With today's opening of the National Museum of Crime & Punishment, the number of high-profile Washington museums that charge admission -- in a city all too used to free ones -- grows, making Penn Quarter a pitched battleground for your hard-earned cultural dollar.

Just last month, it was the Newseum. Last fall, Madame Tussauds. Faced with a troubled national economy including rising gas and food prices (not to mention stiff competition), the D.C. branch of the global wax-museum chain this month lowered its ticket price and has instituted an even steeper discount for area residents. In September, the museum that started it all, the International Spy Museum, introduced an immersive role-playing experience called "Operation Spy," accessible for -- you guessed it -- an extra charge.

But how many of the museums are worth it?

We went and found out. How long does a visit take? Are there hidden charges? Do they live up to the hype? Whom are they geared toward?

Here's our breakdown of what you can expect to cough up and what you can expect to get out of each.

Museum National Museum of Crime & Punishment International Spy Museum Madame Tussauds Newseum
In a Nutshell Developed by the lawyer-businessman behind the WonderWorks amusement parks in Florida and Tennessee in partnership with TV host John Walsh of "America's Most Wanted," the museum aims to illuminate the history and practice of crime-fi ghting without glorifying criminals while reminding visitors that illegal actions have serious and sometimes painful-looking consequences. Call it "Scared Straight: The Museum." The six-year-old museum of espionage and spycraft (which, quite frankly, was starting to look a little worn around the edges) got a major Botox injection in the fall when it opened "Operation Spy." Open to visitors 12 and older, the role-playing game involves the hunt for a nuclear trigger device through sites in the fi ctional country of Khandar. Such Washington-centric wax figures as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, Abe Lincoln and J. Edgar Hoover rub shoulders with golfer Tiger Woods, celebri-couple Brangelina and actor Johnny Depp. It's like some weird high school party where all the cool people and the jocks hang out in one room, while the nerds are off talking policy in the kitchen. At 250,000 square feet, this behemoth, dedicated to the news, could comfortably fit all three of the other museums inside. There's more to watch, play with and read about than anyone (even a die-hard news junkie) could digest in a single day.
Cost* Timed tickets are $17.95; $14.95 law enforcement offi cers and military personnel, seniors and ages 5 to 11; free for children younger than 5. Hidden cost: $5 audio tour. Bonus: Free digital fi ngerprinting and photo ID service for children younger than 18 (a $30 value).

Family of four: $65.80.
Timed tickets are $18; $17 seniors, military personnel and members of the intelligence community; $15 ages 5 to 11; free for children younger than 5. Hidden cost: $14 for "Operation Spy"; $25 combo ticket includes admission to "Operation Spy" and the museum.

Family of four: $66.
$18; $15 seniors; $12 age 12 and younger. District, Maryland and Virginia residents receive a discount with proof of residency: $13 adults and seniors; $9 age 12 and younger. Free for age 3 and younger. Hidden cost: $12.95 for a picture of you in the "Oval Office"; $19.99 for a picture and two photo key chains.

Family of four: $44.
Timed tickets are $20; $18 seniors; $13 ages 7 to 12; free for children younger than 7. Hidden cost: $8 admission to the interactive "Be a TV Reporter" feature.

Family of four: $66.
Ideal Visitor Anyone considering a career in law enforcement ... or crime. Jack Bauer and the field staff of CTU. Your 15-year-old niece from Sioux City and her pink camera phone. The love child of Matt Drudge and Tim Russert.
Average Length Of Visit 2½ to 3½ hours. Two hours for th epermanent collection; an hour for "Operation Spy." An hour, tops. Slightly more if you take pictures. About four hours.
Amenities Medium-size gift shop; no food available. Extensive gift shop; cafe; upscale restaurant. Negligible gift shop; vending machines. Extensive, two-level gift shop; food court; upscale restaurant.
Only In D.C. Still pining for the discontinued tours of the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover Building? Have I got a museum for you! What better location for a museum about spooks, in a metropolitan area that's home to the CIA, FBI and NSA? This one may have Marion Barry, but if you've seen one Madame Tussauds, you've seen them all. With its chunk of the North Tower, the Newseum's 9/11 Gallery may be the most moving memorial to the World Trade Center outside New York.
Virtual Age I have seen the future of museums, and it looks like "the Smithsonian meets Walt Disney World," to quote museum founder John Morgan. Cold War nostalgia makes much of this place feel like the Wayback Machine . . . with the dial stuck between 1940 and 1990. Circa 1835. I don't care if it has touch screens and George Clooney. Wax museums are sooo 19th century. The only way what's billed as the world's most interactive museum could be more state-of-theart is if you could download it to your iPhone.
Best Feature Interactive crime-sceneinvestigation gallery "Murder in Apartment 13." "Operation Spy," seemingly modeled after a lost episode of "24." The discount admission for area residents. Stunning views along Pennsylvania Avenue NW from the Hank Greenspun Terrace.
Worst Feature Guess what murder victim is included among a display of "unsolved" crimes? Nicole Brown Simpson. Long lines; exhibitions that haven't been updated since opening in 2002. You may have to ask for the discount to get it. Hungry downtown office workers can't eat at the museum food court without buying a ticket.
Bang for Your Buck

Definitely worth a visit

Fun, but think twice if you're strapped for cash

Of limited value

Run, don't walk

* For comparison purposes, the cost for a family of four is based on museum admissions for two residents with two children between ages 7 and 11, with no extras. Additional taxes and service fees may apply.
MAP: Laris Karklis - The Washington Post; WEB EDITOR: Anne Kenderdine - washingtonpost.com

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