Scared Straight at the Crime Museum
Along the Corridors
Published: Monday, August 6, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, August 7, 2012 12:08
All summer long, the guide will take a look at some of the museums that call the District home. We’ll weed out tourist traps and find the hidden gems where you can spend a few hours along the corridors.
The Crime Museum — formerly the National Museum of Crime and Punishment — is just a short Metro ride away in Chinatown and well worth the $20 entrance fee. I’m usually against paying to get into museums due to the abundance of free attractions in this city, but this museum was an exception. The numerous exhibits are well produced and interactive as they take you through history, highlighting famous criminals, pirates, robbers and mobsters along with the cruel and unusual punishments many of them suffered. At the end of this exploration through time, after you have seen a very comprehensive display of the bad guys’ side of things, there are still two more floors to explore that feature a crime lab very similar to those seen in “CSI” and “NCIS,” along with the filming studios for America’s Most Wanted.
The museum starts by attempting to scare its visitors straight, telling them to remember that if they break the law, they will end up behind bars for a very long time, just like the many criminals they are about to see in the exhibits. It then asks multiple times if it’s worth it, reminding the guests of the victims, their families and the millions of criminals who also thought they could outsmart law enforcement. The museum clearly hopes to deter young minds from idolizing these historical figures.
Each display was thorough and well presented, featuring genuine artifacts along with replicated torture mechanisms that bring to life the past of the American and world justice systems. Some of the torture mechanisms make for great photo opportunities, since they are free from glass display cases, and the guests are encouraged to explore. Scenes involving wax gangsters were set up throughout the museum, making this place uniquely startling in comparison with others in Washington.
In some cases, the punishments were just as fascinating as the crimes these historic figures were able to pull off. It was unbelievable to see the colonial pillory and ancient German torture tools and how they progressed to the electric chair, guillotine and gas chamber in different cultures.
The Crime Museum spotlights a large variety of criminals, from the famous to the obscure. There is even a wall dedicated to the dumbest criminals, including a man who used a snapping turtle as his weapon of choice and a robber who chose to disguise his face with whipped cream. There was also a complete explanation of prison tattoos and which crimes and acts they symbolized to those in the know.
The exhibit introducing the gangsters that ruled at the beginning of the mob era provided a greater understanding of these crooks and the schemes that persuaded so many to begin a life of crime.
Though the criminals’ lasting legacies are emphasized and even glorified throughout the visit, the museum concludes — as it began — with more focus on the law enforcement aspect of history to stop curious minds from becoming too attracted to this lifestyle.
One exhibit featured the crime scene analysis technology of our justice system and had a staged crime scene in a bedroom where someone had been killed. Guests then walked though the exhibit to learn more about the forensic science techniques used to analyze this scenario, such as ballistics, fingerprinting and facial reconstruction. There is also a replicated booking station, holding room and jail cell complete with an escape hole mimicking the one Al Capone used to break out.
All in all, the Crime Museum is interesting, educational and fun to explore. It’s not bogged down with lengthy descriptions and lets the artifacts and displays speak for themselves, allowing visitors to truly enjoy this unfortunate — yet fascinating — part of American and world history.