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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