The Lure of Crime Exhibits


When I was seven, two friends and I started a club called the Yellow Detectives. We made up fake code names, a flag, and a pledge. Our activities mostly consisted of using our over-active imaginations to concoct “mysteries” out of litter on the ground and snippets heard on walkie-talkies; anything and everything could be considered a “clue.” Since then, I’ve lost interest in detective work, but I know that crime, crime fighting, investigation, and penalties are popular topics in the public imagination. Museums can draw people in with these scintillating subjects, and then bring visitors to deeper levels of thought once they’re in the exhibit space.

At my current workplace, the non-profit Newseum, the FBI exhibit is in the so-called Changing Gallery, though, due to its popularity, the exhibit as a whole has not actually changed since the Newseum’s 2008 opening. Visitors navigating the Newseum commonly ask to be directed to two objects in particular, the Unabomber cabin and Pretty Boy Floyd’s gun.

The Newseum's G-Men and Journalists exhibit displays the Unabomber's cabin

The Newseum's G-Men and Journalists exhibit displays the Unabomber's cabin

The allure of these objects brings visitors in to begin with, but the exhibit is meant to elicit a range of thoughts and emotions. Tissue boxes sit near the artifacts from 9/11 and other terrorist attacks. One glass case contains a KKK costume and brochure disparaging the “worst horror on earth” of interracial dating and multiracial children. An intern in the Collections department told me that an angry visitor once spat on the case. Visitors can learn about individual victims of the Unabomber, as well as the complicated relationship between the FBI and the press (G-Men and Journalists), which is especially apparent in the standoff between the FBI and the Branch Davidians in Waco, TX.

Newseum visitors often ask if the objects, particularly the Unabomber cabin, are real. Any replicas are labeled as such, but perhabs the Unabomber cabin needs a big sign declaring, “Yes, it’s real!” It is also worth noting that the objects that are replicas, such as the model of the ladder used in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, were not made specifically for the museum, but played their own part in history as the mock-ups used in the trials following the crimes.

Nearby is the National Museum of Crime and Punishment (NMCP), which is a for-profit museum (though it has a .org web address). Like the Newseum, NMCP piques audience interest in the topic: many Yelp reviewers of NMCP describe their fascination with crime and detective work. Popular things to see include Ted Bundy’s car (in which he transported his rape and murder victims), a shooting simulator, and the America’s Most Wanted studio.

National Museum of Crime and Punishment exterior

National Museum of Crime and Punishment exterior

Of course, I have spent much more time in the Newseum than in NMCP, but from my one NMCP visit, I remember reading safety tips for kids interspersed among the artifacts and interactives. The museum’s website details its work with non-profit partners, including the Natalee Holloway Resource Center and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. NMCP also educates audiences about McGruff the Crime Dog. Though high-profile crimes are the initial draw, the museum delves into engaging visitors on subjects of personal safety and finding the missing.

The forthcoming National Law Enforcement Museum (NLEM), also located within blocks of the Newseum and NMCP, will further involve visitors on topics of crime-fighting and detective work. An outgrowth of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, the museum-in-progress will focus especially on the risk and valor of law enforcement.

Museums and exhibits about crime can spark the interest of the Law and Order-loving public, and use this interest as a springboard to address deeper, and often thornier, subjects like risk, safety, justice, rehabilitation, and civil disobedience. They can also go beyond the shiny artifacts and educate about crime history, forensic science, and the thinking skills needed for detective work.

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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