A Night Out: The Opening of the National Museum of Crime & Punishment

By: Emily Leaman

The National Museum of Crime & Punishment officially opens today, but last night we got a sneak peek of the latest addition to DC’s Penn Quarter neighborhood at a preopening reception and museum tour.

We had no idea what to expect—the museum’s name told us everything and nothing at the same time—but the invitation promised a go-round on a high-speed-police-chase simulator, so we were game. And apparently, we weren’t the only ones: The doors opened at 6:30, and when we arrived at 7 a long line had already formed and was snaking halfway down Seventh Street.

Out on the sidewalk, we were greeted by McGruff the Crime Dog and orange-jumpsuit-clad museum staff. Inside, we found a well-stocked open bar—not a usual fixture of the kid-friendly museum—where we helped ourselves to a glass of red wine before being ushered upstairs to the exhibit hall.

The museum follows a similar track as the International Spy Museum, its neighbor, where exhibitions start at the top of the building and work their way downward. They snake through Disney-like exhibit halls built like movie sets, complete with soundtracks and appropriate lighting, to make a visit feel like more than just a few hours at a museum—it’s an entire “experience.”

We won’t spoil the whole thing, but the National Museum of Crime & Punishment boasts a number of high points. Our favorites:

All photos by Chris Leaman.

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• Shooting practice at the OK Corral. In the Wild West exhibit, you can strap on a rifle and shoot at targets in a barnyard set. It reminded us of Nintendo’s Duck Hunt—only more accurate.

• Bonnie-and-Clyde car. It wasn’t the real “death car,” but the bullet-holed 1934 Ford Fordor is the same one used in the 1967 movie starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.

• Mobsters galore. We couldn’t help but read every single placard in the mobsters exhibit. The names were all familiar—Al Capone, John Gotti—and we loved the big-band music blasting from the speakers. Our favorite touch: a cartoon mobster map of Chicago, divided by gang and mob family, complete with a dictionary of mobster vernacular.

• Photo ops. They’re everywhere: put your head in the stocks, rot away in a jail cell, hop aboard a police motorcycle, take a crack at forensics in a crime lab, and stand in a police line-up down at the precinct.

• Celebrity mug shots. We know, we know—our moms always told us that it’s mean to have fun at the expense of another’s misfortune. But when celebs are involved, we can’t resist! At the wall of celebrity mug shots, challenge you friends to a game of Name That Misdemeanor. Paris Hilton! Mike Tyson! Mel Gibson! Michael Jackson! Even . . . Frank Sinatra? Yup, it’s true. Old Blue Eyes was arrested at age 23 for seduction and adultery, both crimes in 1938. He spent 16 hours in jail.

• Interactive exhibits. The place is teeming with them. Try your hand at cracking a safe or hacking a computer. Or, if law enforcement’s more your bag, grab a gun and participate in a police raid. And that police-chase simulator? It’s as awesome as it sounds. And apparently, it’s the real deal—police forces across the country use these to help train new recruits.

Any downsides? Like the Spy Museum, the Museum of Crime & Punishment requires a lot of reading. Kids will like looking at some of the contraptions on display, but don’t expect them to glean much information from the experience. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing—some of the crime descriptions are downright disturbing. The section on serial killers left us shuddering.

Another issue: the cost. Except for today, when tickets are being sold for half price, admission will be $17.95 for adults and $14.95 for kids. For a family of four, that’s more than $65. On top of it, many of the interactive exhibits cost extra; it’s a dollar to shoot a round at the OK Corral, for example.

So in a city where there are a lot of great things to do for free, is it worth the price? Many we talked to seemed to think so. Heather Algar said she expected to spend ten minutes in the museum; an hour and a half later, she was finally done. “The disturbing exhibits draw you in,” she explained.

Sam Perry, who works in corporate marketing at Golds Gym, was a big fan of the shooting range. “It’s much better than the Spy Museum,” the 28-year-old said. “It’s more interactive, and a lot of this stuff has happened since I’ve been alive. I can relate to it.”

Will you make a visit to the National Museum of Crime & Punishment? Tell us in the comments.


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