America’s fascination with crime will take a new turn Friday -- opening day for the National Museum of Crime and Punishment.
In film classics such as “Little Caesar” and “Dial M for Murder” and today’s TV staples of “CSI” and “Law & Order,” crime has long been glorified. This new museum seeks to downplay the fame given to criminals and spotlight law enforcement’s investigative work.
The 28,000-square-foot facility, in the revitalized Penn Quarter section of the capital not far from the National Mall, also will be the new home of the popular Fox television show “America’s Most Wanted.”
At least once a month, host John Walsh will film the show in a basement studio that also will house the call-in center where viewers submit tips on suspects highlighted in the weekly episodes. Museum visitors can explore the studio and have their children fingerprinted and photographed for free.
The museum is designed to educate the public on the punishments criminals face and the work that goes into catching the bad guys, Walsh said. “Yes, you’ll see some fascinating criminals, but you’ll see the real heroes,” he said.
A history of American crime leads visitors through the winding hallway with information on crime and punishment in several time periods. Visitors can place their head and arms in colonial stocks, participate in a Wild West shootout and flip through mug shots of infamous criminals.
Beyond the historical galleries, visitors can view the bullet-riddled car from the 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde,” try to fool a lie detector, participate in a police lineup and attempt to escape from prison.
A replica of legendary gangster Al Capone’s cell at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia is re-created down to the crack in the ceiling and the peeling paint on the walls. The gallery also contains several other cells with artifacts on display, including crafts made by inmates at Louisiana’s Angola state prison.
Another gallery, an exhibit on the death penalty, holds scale models of a gas chamber, an electric chair and a guillotine.
The museum includes interactive features, such as an FBI shooting range, a high-speed police-chase simulator and a police booking room. A “crime scene” on the first floor gives visitors the chance to look for clues and apply DNA testing, fingerprint analysis and even examination of a “body” in a morgue to determine the cause of death.
“There’s a strong message throughout the museum that crime does not pay, criminals are not heroes and there are consequences,” said museum owner John Morgan, a lawyer from Orlando, Fla.
Morgan said he came up with the idea five years ago while trying to navigate the tourist crowds on a trip to Alcatraz Island, the former federal prison that’s now a national park in San Francisco Bay.
“I think we as Americans, and as people in general, have a fascination with crime and punishment,” he said. “There is nothing in America or the world that focuses on what we’re fascinated with, which is crime and punishment.”
Like other nearby attractions that have opened in recent years -- notably the International Spy Museum, Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum and the Newseum -- the crime museum is charging admission: $17.95 for patrons 12 and older and $14.95 for children 5 to 11 and seniors 60 and older.
Within a few blocks are a variety of government-supported museums that charge no fee, including the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum and Museum of Natural History, but Morgan is not concerned about the free competition. After all, he noted, the Spy Museum charges $18 for adults -- and it attracted 750,000 visitors last year.
As for the connection with “America’s Most Wanted,” Morgan, who owns the WaterWorks interactive attractions in Orlando and Pigeon Forge, Tenn., said most Americans identify Walsh with criminal investigations.
“People will get a big kick out of seeing a working studio, and in the end I kept coming back to John Walsh,” Morgan said.
Walsh has been the host of “America’s Most Wanted” since the show began airing 20 years ago. To date, 999 fugitives have been caught because of viewer tips, according to the show’s website.
Walsh became involved in anti-crime efforts after his 7-year-old son Adam was abducted from a shopping mall in Hollywood, Fla., in 1981. Adam’s severed head was found in a canal 16 days later; no one was ever charged with the crime. Walsh is a co-founder of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and has been honored by four presidents for his work as a victims’ advocate.
Walsh said he had three stipulations before attaching his name to the museum: It could not glorify crime, it must honor fallen officers and it must show the consequences of committing a crime.
“All of my experience of ‘America’s Most Wanted’ is that these guys are looking for 15 seconds of fame at a terrible cost to their victims,” he said. Walsh said he agreed to be a part of the museum if it had “dignity and integrity.”
“I’m all about ‘if you do the crime, you’ve got to do the time,’ ” he said. “People are going to say they’re fascinated by crime, knowledgeable about punishment. I think you’ll walk out of that museum and say there are consequences.”
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
575 7th St. N.W. (between E and F streets), Washington, D.C. 20004; (202) 393-1099, www.crimemuseum.org. The nearest Metro stop is Gallery Place-Chinatown (Red, Yellow and Green lines).
Tickets: $17.95 for ages 12 to 59; $14.95 for ages 5 to 11, seniors (60 and older), military and law enforcement; younger than 5, free.