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Crime pays at new museum
Crime does pay. At least John Morgan, a lawyer from Orlando, Fla., is counting on that. He is the owner of the National Museum of Crime and Punishment, a venue opening today on Seventh Street Northwest in Penn Quarter’s blossoming cultural district.
At $17.95 per ticket (half-price today) visitors are invited to pick up a rifle in a Wild West shootout, plan a prison break and test their knowledge of infamous murderers. Much of the three-level museum glorifies violence in exhibits of weaponry and artifacts such as Chicago serial killer John Wayne Gacy’s paint set and typewriter, but Mr. Morgan claims otherwise.
“These are just the facts,” he says, standing next to a poster noting that “every 22.2 seconds there is one violent crime committed in the nation.” He says that throughout the museum, “There’s a strong message that criminals are not heroes and there are consequences for their actions.”
However, the museum is introduced by a lively history of American crime, and less theatrical displays devoted to law enforcement come at the end. Mr. Morgan says part of his inspiration came from the public tours of the Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest. They were discontinued in 2002 after the crime lab in the building, which constituted a major part of the tours, was moved to Quantico, Va.
The 28,000-square-foot crime museum houses not only exhibits, but a basement television studio for the popular Fox show “America's Most Wanted.” Host John Walsh, who is part owner, will broadcast an episode about once a month from the space, which includes a call-in center for collecting tips on suspects profiled on the air.
This combination of television studio, interactive exhibits and life-size mannequins follows the niche-entertainment formula of the nearby Newseum, Spy Museum and Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. Mr. Morgan, who owns the WaterWorks amusement parks in Orlando and Pigeon Forge, Tenn., hasn’t created a museum in the traditional sense, but, rather, an attraction meant to titillate with stories of the bad guys, their punishments and the work that goes into catching them.
Still, the museum includes some fascinating, if esoteric, stuff related to the country’s most-wanted criminals. Just inside the front door is the shiny red 1933 Ford Essex driven by bank robber John Dillinger, purchased from a Pennsylvania collector for $100,000, according to Mr. Morgan.
Upstairs, exhibits on the history of crime begin with medieval contraptions, such as a funnel for water torture, before moving on to Colonial stocks and pirates’ pistols. A section on Western outlaws features Billy the Kid’s knife and Jesse James’ slate notebook. Displays related to the Great Depression include the Stetson worn by Crazy Joe Gallo on the day he was shot.
Some of the objects aren’t authentic but are replicas from the movies: the shot-up getaway car from “Bonnie and Clyde,” the machine gun used by Al Pacino in the movie “Scarface” and the pistol brandished by Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness in “The Untouchables.” This blurring of the line between reality and make-believe enlivens the viewing experience but reduces the depicted criminal activities to mere entertainment.
Artwork is another tool for making the gruesome acts more palliative. “Many criminals have highly developed artistic gifts,” reads the text for a disturbing display of jewelry and drawings by serial killers such as the Boston Strangler and “Son of Sam” David Berkowitz. Crafts, tattoo designs and paintings created by inmates are also on view.
The crime-oriented exhibits end with presidential assassinations, kidnappings and cyber-thefts before moving on to a less dramatic segment dealing with law and order. Framed by cinder-block walls, displays explaining the process of arrests, booking and incarceration have the institutional look of a prison. Farther along, an exhibit on the death penalty features an electric chair, a gas chamber and a guillotine.
A typical prison cell, complete with steel toilet, has been re-created along with gangster Al Capone’s “Living in Luxury” quarters, complete with a radio and a wing chair, at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.
Mr. Morgan says he came up with the idea for his museum five years ago during a visit to the former federal prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. Learning of the eight-day wait to get in, he realized a museum of crime and punishment might draw similar crowds.
To keep visitors engaged, interactive setups are scattered throughout the museum. In the punishment section, an FBI shooting range and a high-speed chase simulator give visitors the chance to test their policing skills before descending a staircase to the first floor, where more exhibits await.
In the final galleries, a staged crime scene provides the opportunity to look for clues, analyze evidence and examine a “body” to determine the cause and time of death. Part of the exhibit is set up as a morgue with one wall paneled in the type of metal doors used to access cadaver storage.
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