Museum focuses on justice system

March 7, 2011
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Reporter Rebecca Berfanger wrote this post.

If you ever find yourself in Washington, D.C., have a few hours, and want to visit a place where there is so much to see I can almost promise you will learn something new, I highly recommend the National Museum of Crime & Punishment, 575 7th St. NW.

I learned about the museum in early 2009 from a friend who lives in Washington. We worked it into the last day of my recent visit because it seemed like an appropriate end to my trip to visit the FBI last week. (Read more about that in the March 16-29, 2011, issue of Indiana Lawyer).

Before checking it out, the only thing I really knew about the museum was that John Walsh, host of “America’s Most Wanted,” was instrumental in getting it started and that “America’s Most Wanted” is filmed in the museum’s basement.

The museum, which opened in May 2008, is meant to be a realistic response to the dramatized version of crime and punishment most of us are familiar with from TV and movies. While there is a dramatic element to it, visitors also get to see many artifacts of crime and punishment, including “murderabilia” and a re-creation of Al Capone’s jail cell, while still learning of the historical and modern issues of the justice system in the U.S.

Visitors first see exhibits about the history of crime and punishment, including medieval devices and Puritanical methods of punishing people for crimes that are no longer crimes, such as kissing your wife on the Sabbath. There was also information about the inexact science of doling out punishments: a woman might be publicly ridiculed for the same crime that, if committed by a man, the man would pay a fine.

There is also a section on pirates, including weapons they used, an explanation of the different flags they would fly, and a couple stories about pirates who were women.

The museum weaves in the history of law enforcement, including agencies that sought to find outlaws in the West in the 1800s, to the role of the FBI and other agencies when fighting gangsters like Indiana’s own John Dillinger in the 1920s and 1930s.

While there is too much to summarize in a blog post, a few highlights were the section on American prisons, including the evolution of how prisoners have been treated while incarcerated; a section on the death penalty, which included a guillotine, an electric chair, and a re-creation of a gas chamber; and police simulators where visitors can choose if and when to use deadly force in various scenarios.

There was also a simulated crime scene where visitors see how detectives handle and examine evidence. That section was very interactive – visitors could see the various pieces of evidence investigators would be interested in such as bullet holes in the wall, a powdery substance on a mirror by the bed, a datebook, and blood. A little later, there was a mannequin on a slab with a video to explain how crime lab workers determine information about the victim’s stab and gunshot wounds.

The museum has rooms for special exhibits and programs. The day I was there, there was a CSI demonstration, and there was an exhibit featuring props and the history behind the story for the upcoming movie “The Conspirator” directed by Robert Redford about what happened after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

While most museums in Washington, D.C., are free, the National Museum of Crime & Punishment is definitely worth the price of admission, about $20 for adults. There is a lot to see there, and I’d recommend planning a day or at least an afternoon in the museum to get your money’s worth.


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  1. I think the cops are doing a great job locking up criminals. The Murder rates in the inner cities are skyrocketing and you think that too any people are being incarcerated. Maybe we need to lock up more of them. We have the ACLU, BLM, NAACP, Civil right Division of the DOJ, the innocent Project etc. We have court system with an appeal process that can go on for years, with attorneys supplied by the government. I'm confused as to how that translates into the idea that the defendants are not being represented properly. Maybe the attorneys need to do more Pro-Bono work

  2. We do not have 10% of our population (which would mean about 32 million) incarcerated. It's closer to 2%.

  3. If a class action suit or other manner of retribution is possible, count me in. I have email and voicemail from the man. He colluded with opposing counsel, I am certain. My case was damaged so severely it nearly lost me everything and I am still paying dearly.

  4. There's probably a lot of blame that can be cast around for Indiana Tech's abysmal bar passage rate this last February. The folks who decided that Indiana, a state with roughly 16,000 to 18,000 attorneys, needs a fifth law school need to question the motives that drove their support of this project. Others, who have been "strong supporters" of the law school, should likewise ask themselves why they believe this institution should be supported. Is it because it fills some real need in the state? Or is it, instead, nothing more than a resume builder for those who teach there part-time? And others who make excuses for the students' poor performance, especially those who offer nothing more than conspiracy theories to back up their claims--who are they helping? What evidence do they have to support their posturing? Ultimately, though, like most everything in life, whether one succeeds or fails is entirely within one's own hands. At least one student from Indiana Tech proved this when he/she took and passed the February bar. A second Indiana Tech student proved this when they took the bar in another state and passed. As for the remaining 9 who took the bar and didn't pass (apparently, one of the students successfully appealed his/her original score), it's now up to them (and nobody else) to ensure that they pass on their second attempt. These folks should feel no shame; many currently successful practicing attorneys failed the bar exam on their first try. These same attorneys picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to the rigorous study needed to ensure they would pass on their second go 'round. This is what the Indiana Tech students who didn't pass the first time need to do. Of course, none of this answers such questions as whether Indiana Tech should be accredited by the ABA, whether the school should keep its doors open, or, most importantly, whether it should have even opened its doors in the first place. Those who promoted the idea of a fifth law school in Indiana need to do a lot of soul-searching regarding their decisions. These same people should never be allowed, again, to have a say about the future of legal education in this state or anywhere else. Indiana already has four law schools. That's probably one more than it really needs. But it's more than enough.

  5. This man Steve Hubbard goes on any online post or forum he can find and tries to push his company. He said court reporters would be obsolete a few years ago, yet here we are. How does he have time to search out every single post about court reporters and even spy in private court reporting forums if his company is so successful???? Dude, get a life. And back to what this post was about, I agree that some national firms cause a huge problem.