Lost Places - Museum of Crime & Punishment, Washington D.C.
Sadly, this museum closed down, apparently for financial reasons in 2015. I found it quite surprising when I learned about this, given how obsessed Americans are about this museum's subject matter and how many other visitors I saw when I was there in the spring of 2010, but there we are. Here's the old chapter I had written about after my visit and that is now reedundant; but here you can read about what's lost. I didn't bother with putting every verb in the past tense in the text below, so when you read it bear in mind that it is all outdated.
UPDATE: apparently the museum was resurrected in a new location in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, under the new name "Alcatraz East" and housed in a mock-19th-century prison building. If I ever make it to that place I should go on a "return" visit to check how it compares with its previous incarnation.
A comparatively new, very modern, flashy, "fun" museum in Washington D.C.
that is precisely about what it says on the packet – including a section on capital punishment, which makes for some really dark stuff! In a few other sections too it is grimmer than the "fun" descriptor might suggest.
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
What there is to see: The museum advertises itself as an experience of "America's favorite subject" and uses the slogan "so much fun – it's a crime!". So make no mistake: this is not just a sober, stuffy, old-fashioned museum, it's a multimedia-heavy, interactive show-y affair – one for families with kids. Still, it includes some grim elements that even the museum warns may be too "harsh" for small children (but for them there's plenty of more harmless play stuff too). These are of course exactly the bits that are of interest to the dark tourist.
Once you've parted with your dollars for the hefty admission fee you head for the top floor and "work your way down", as it were – since the museum is on three floors.
It starts off fairly subdued, with brief accounts of the Middle Ages and the early days of settlers in America. There's predictably a section about Wild West outlaws, before we finally enter the 20th century, where things get more interesting. The first real show-off part is the Bonnie-and-Clyde section, complete with a bullet-ridden car (a prop from the 1967 movie about the famous robbers/gang leaders).
Accounts of various other individual high-profile crime cases follow, including axe murders, plane hijackings and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, JFK and John Lennon. The Charles Manson case gets some coverage too – as does Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City
Moving on to the topic of punishment, there's a large section covering arrests, line-ups, interrogations … leading up to imprisonment. You can try yourself against a lie detector and test your qualities as an eye witness … which is tougher than you may think – I didn't perform too admirably at all.
In the prison section you get to see a replica modern-day prison cell … with a hole in the wall next to lower part of the two-tier bunk bed – through this hole you can try to "escape". An arrow on the wall pointing towards the hole invites you to do this ostentatiously enough.
Infamous individual prisons are covered in a dedicated section – and here you'll find all the usual suspects: Sing Sing, San Quentin, Alcatraz
, the lot. The Eastern State Penitentiary
is also represented – they even have a mock-up of Al Capone's plush cell at ESP.
If that was already somewhat dark, the next section is the real highlight for the dark tourist: the subject of death arrives in the form of the museum's section about capital punishment. Certainly an American favourite. And this is covered in some detail and breadth – from deadly torture and hanging to modern-day "clean" methods.
There's a "life-size" guillotine and an authentic electric chair: "Old Smokey" from Tennessee – in which 125 convicts were electrocuted (several after rather doubtful convictions).
After those rather crude killing apparatus, the more clinical modern method of lethal injection appears comparatively "cold", but comes across even more chilling and abominable in a way … at least that's what I felt. Somehow the remote lethal injection control panel sent worse shivers down my spine than the cruder, more direct killing machines. Reflection on the very issue of the impossibility of taking human executioners out of the process is presented in the form of a mock "prototype" injection robot – which is actually a sculpture, however. Dark art indeed.
In my view the grimmest exhibit of them all, however, has to be the gas chamber … not as in the mass murdering installations of the Nazi death camps
in the Holocaust
, but a clean, shiny polished-aluminium single-seater capsule, that looks like it could just as well have been a "teleportation" prop in a science fiction movie. But then you read the "procedure" description on the accompanying text panel … about the chemicals involved, how they are applied, the exact physiological effects they have, and how long it all takes, minimally or maximally (if the victim tries to hold his or her breath it apparently gets particularly painful and cruel). It's a truly blood-curdling exhibit.
All the "procedures" of such state-administered killings are described in similarly chilling detail. They even a have a photo of Timothy McVeigh being strapped into the gurney just before his execution. It is noted in the accompanying text that the execution was "controversial", but otherwise the whole topic is covered rather matter-of-factly, without any fundamental ethical discussion.
Some of the following sections are even downright celebratory – as we move on to modern police "restraint" equipment such as tasers, stun guns, acoustic devices and other scarily modern technology.
Next is a mock shooting range where kids can show off their ego-shooter skills on a larger scale than the PC screen at home. You even get coaching. I moved on quickly.
The next sections turn to crime investigation as seen on television, in particular to the well-known series "CSI" and the phone-in crime show "America's Most Wanted". For the latter there's a "walk-in" studio mock-up (with green screen). The former is covered in a somewhat more museum-like fashion – and is actually rather interesting.
Here it's about forensics, toxicology, ballistics, etc. – the "centrepiece" being an autopsy mock-up with a dummy on which you can learn to distinguish different types of gun shots, as well as knife wounds or evidence of strangulation. A mock morgue rounds off this section.
Finally there are comparatively restrained and non-interactive sections about cold cases and crimes against culture – especially looting of cultural artefacts, which e.g. in Cambodia
is a big problem. But these sections somehow struggle to compete with the flashier interactive and multimedia-heavy parts of this more "experience"-oriented kind of museum. And this, overall, tends to be a little on the sensationalist side.
That at least was my impression when I finally emerged back at the entrance on the ground floor. Notwithstanding, though, it sure has its very good bits and therefore should not be missed by the dark tourist when in Washington!
The commercial nature of the place is also underscored by the adjacent shop. Here you can buy all manner of general and especially thematic souvenirs. In the window facing the street there's even a scale model of an electric chair. Now that's pretty hard core, if you ask me! A toy for Wednesday Addams to put her dolls in, perhaps?
very central in downtown Washington D.C.
, at 575 7th Street NW, between E and F Streets.
Access and costs: easy to get to; quite expensive.
Details: the location is easily reached by Metro – the stop Gallery Place/Chinatown (green, yellow and red lines) is just half a block away to the north on 7th Street.
Admission: a whopping USD 21.95 (plus tax) for a regular ticket, various concessions (for seniors, US military and law enforcement personnel) bring it down to 19.95, but even for children aged 5 to 11 it's still a hefty 14.95; only under 5-year-olds get in for free (but they wouldn't get much out of this sort of place anyway). Pre-purchasing tickets online (for a specific date and time slot) saves 2 bucks.
Opening times: Sunday to Thursday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 8 p.m., extended hours in the summer (according to their website from 21 May to 4 September): Monday to Thursday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday opening hours remain the same. Slightly altered, reduced or extended opening times apply on a few special dates. Closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
Time required: if concentrating only on the really dark bits, an hour or even less may be sufficient – if you want to experience everything the museum has to offer to the full, two to three hours is more realistic.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see Washington D.C.
– the Spy Museum is just round the corner, the Newseum
is not far either, also within walking distance.
- Museum of Crime and Punishment 1
- Museum of Crime and Punishment 2 - prisons displays
- Museum of Crime and Punishment 3 - death penalty section with lethal injection machine
- Museum of Crime and Punishment 4 - electric chair
- Museum of Crime and Punishment 5 - gas chamber
- Museum of Crime and Punishment 6 - a more old-fashioned aparatus
- Museum of Crime and Punishment 7 - forensics section
- Museum of Crime and Punishment 8 - autopsy section
- Museum of Crime and Punishment 9 - autopsy explanations
- Museum of Crime and Punishment 9b - mock morgue
- Museum of Crime and Punishment 9c - macabre shop item
- Museum of Crime and Punishment