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Where the Punishment Fits the Crime
February 01, 2010
George Washington Today investigates whether crime pays at one of D.C.’s newest museums.
By Rachel Muir
See John Dillinger’s getaway car, Jesse James’ notebook and J. Edgar Hoover’s badge; try your hand at an FBI shooting range or escaping from prison; or attempt to solve a murder in a simulated CSI lab.
It’s all part of the National Museum of Crime and Punishment, the only one of its kind in the nation, according to Janine Vaccarello, the museum’s chief operating officer.
Opened in 2008 in D.C.’s Penn Quarter neighborhood, the museum has a mission of documenting the nation’s history of crime and punishment and of raising awareness of the work of law enforcement officers, says Ms. Vaccarello.
The three-level museum includes hundreds of interactive exhibits and artifacts from crime and crime fighting. It also hosts a series of CSI workshops, many of which are led by students in GW’s forensic science program, and houses the TV studio where America’s Most Wanted is taped.
The top floor is devoted to the history of crime starting with medieval torture devices (best to leave young children at home) and continuing through a who’s who of criminals, including pirates, Wild West outlaws, mobsters, bank robbers and serial killers.
Artifacts include John Dillinger’s death mask, the bullet-riddled car used in the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde movie, bloodstained floorboards from Jesse James’ house, sketches by Charles Manson and an oil paint kit owned by serial killer John Wayne Gacy. The museum’s entrance is flanked by John Dillinger’s 1933 bullet-proof getaway car, still a shiny cherry red.
The museum gives equal weight to punishment, featuring a full-size jail cell, a recreation of Al Capone’s cell and a fairly terrifying collection of weapons found on prisoners. A display on capital punishment includes a life-size replica guillotine and an actual electric chair (Tennessee’s “Old Smokey”). There are also mug shots of the famous including a young and nerdy Bill Gates and a sullen Frank Sinatra.
The museum’s middle level is home to an interactive crime scene investigation gallery that allows museum goers to utilize forensic science techniques, including toxicology and DNA testing, to try to solve a recent murder.
The CSI gallery is one of the museum’s most popular features, says Ms. Vaccarello. “It gives people a chance to learn in more depth about the investigative processes portrayed in the popular TV shows.” On weekends, the museum offers CSI workshops with topics including fingerprint collection, understanding blood spatter patterns, matching DNA profiles and detecting fraud and forgeries.
“I was impressed with the quality of the museum,” says Edward Robinson, GW associate professor of forensic sciences. “I particularly like the areas devoted to crime scene investigations, naturally.” A former CSI with police departments in Arlington, Va., and Baltimore, Mr. Robinson has led a museum workshop titled “Using Invisible Evidence to Solve a Crime.”
ecent GW graduate Olga Peterfalvy, M.F.S. ’09, serves as the museum’s CSI coordinator, overseeing the workshop program. She also writes the museum’s blog, which “covers all kinds of forensic information including synopses of articles, games, short story mysteries and really anything forensic related.”
“I really like my work at the museum,” says Ms. Peterfalvy, who is one of four GW graduates and three current students who develop and teach the workshops. “I have a chance to educate the public on forensics and sometimes dispel faulty information gained from popular television shows.”
While crime may not pay, museum visitors have to. Regular admission is $19.95 but the museum has two significantly discounted offers that GW community members can take advantage of: $6 Sundays in which anyone with a local ID or GWorld card can get in for $6, and $10 anytime with a GWorld card through March 15. The weekends of Valentine’s Day and Presidents’ Day are excluded from both offers.
The National Museum of Crime and Punishment is located at 575 Seventh St., NW, a block from the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro.
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