The Gift Shop of the Dead - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Gift Shop of the Dead

For the past twelve years I’ve volunteered at a crisis pregnancy center serving mainly low-income women in the District of Columbia, and I’ve noticed something about how our clients talk: Nobody ever says “prison.” Boyfriends, husbands, fathers, sons were never “locked up,” “in jail,” or “serving time”; they were always “incarcerated.”

There is an unexpected poignancy to the bureaucratic term—a lacy Latinate word suffused with so much pain, as if standardization and abstraction could dissolve shame. Hesitation first, and then that careful, strictly-speaking “incarcerated,” like the set phrases we use in the confessional.

Nothing could be further from these women’s delicacy than the National Museum of Crime and Punishment, a giant KFC bucket of suffering. I spent about four hours in this glitzy memorial-without-memory, accompanied by at least two school field trips. Admission is $23.21 and, you know, your self-respect.

The Museum of Crime and Punishment is one big ad for a lot of things: law-enforcement jobs, America’s Most Wanted, the myth of progress. In the dark entrance stairwell, clusters of televisions show disjointed, contextless crime footage. A man’s voiceover gives the museum’s mission statement:

In a free society like ours, some think nobody has the right to tell us what to do. But the law is on your side. It’s there to balance the scales and restore the victims’ rights. Remember, you wake up each morning with a choice: Play it straight, or press your luck. So is what you plan to do in your life worth a month, a year, or the rest of your life behind bars? It’s not. Not for you, not for the victims, or for your family….Eventually everyone faces judgment. Some pay the ultimate penalty. Others are sentenced to what many consider a fate worse than death. 

I doubt many visitors hear this entire spiel. It plays on a loop, meant to set a certain atmosphere. I like the queasy theology of it—a promise of judgment without the hope of mercy—and the chop-licking reference to prison as “a fate worse than death,” and I like how it answers its rhetorical questions just in case. I like how it addresses us as potential criminals who roll out of bed each morning feeling like Raskolnikov. I like, too, how the news headlines projected onto the walls of the stairwell contradict the voiceover’s message: OJ SIMPSON FOUND NOT GUILTY. CONVICTED KILLER FOUND INNOCENT AFTER DNA TEST.

The museum’s exhibits are arranged in rough chronological order, starting with what the museum calls “Medieval Times” (or “The Dark Ages”) but which actually seems to cover a period from about the fourteenth to the eighteenth century. These exhibits are history horror shows of gibbets, leg irons, “scold’s bridles,” a “shame flute” supposedly affixed to the faces of bad musicians, whips, chains, and baroque torturous bric-a-brac, accompanied by wall texts which gawp at the brutality of the dead. There’s a soundtrack of clanking chains. “It is considered an age before enlightenment…” etc. The middle-schoolers ahead of me are vocally horrified by a “Water Torture Funnel” which has an effect similar to waterboarding Neither the wall captions nor the kids make this connection, since it doesn’t fit the narrative of enlightenment. I’ve read Jack Chick tracts with more nuanced approaches to history.

Let me pause and say that I genuinely appreciated the museum’s focus on the use of shame and public humiliation as punishment. It’s all framed as, “Look at these horrible ‘medievals’!” But recognizing humiliation as a form of dehumanization—and maybe the central organizing principle of torture, since you have to dehumanize the subject before you can torture him—is somewhat countercultural these days. We hide prisoners away so we don’t have to take responsibility for what happens to them (and then make jokes about not dropping the soap). But tacit complicity is a little better than active participation. And maybe some kid will see the line, “In all cases the punishment was intensified by the fact that the victim was exposed to public insult,” and wonder why the Museum of Crime and Punishment has a gallery of celebrities’ mug shots. Would you trade a day in the stocks for a chance to get rid of the worst parts of your online, searchable, inescapable public persona? Or to ban the showing of “your episode” of COPS?

The wall texts here decry “Double Standards” for men and women, rich and poor, consistently emphasizing our distance from the past. (“As Court Fees Rise, The Poor Are Paying the Price,” National Public Radio, May 19, 2014.) The Puritans criminalized crazy stuff like “dice cogging”! (“Bill Winters…will spend the rest of his life in prison for a string of petty crimes, the pettiest his final booking in 2009 over a box of candy swiped in a burglary.” Lafayette Independent, August 2, 2013. “Why Should Thousands of Prisoners Die Behind Bars for Nonviolent Crimes?” Liliana Segura, the Nation, November 13, 2013.)

Clumsy or ungrammatical phrasing and spellcheck errors plague the museum. We get “Jessie James,” twice, but my favorite was the description of Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo being built in “the dessert town of Las Vegas.” One exhibit titled “Medieval Executions” features a guillotine and a quote from Georges Danton, as if the French Revolution were medieval rather than the opposite of medieval. At least they spelled “Georges” right. In the Old West section there’s a quotation from one of the William Pitts. (Not sure which one.)

It would be a mistake to attribute any philosophy or even a consistent mood to this desultory, sentimental museum. But to the extent that there is any continuity between exhibits, this continuity lies in the museum’s besotted swoon in the presence of power. Lawmen, bank robbers, even Pancho Villa (“ATENCIÓN GRINGOS!” his recruiting poster reads, “FOR GOLD AND GLORY”)—if you’ve got a gun and you look cool, without that creepy serial-killer dead stare, you will be glamorized here. There’s a section on pirates and although the wall text says that pirates were poor, and modern piracy is bad, kids, don’t be a Somalian pirate when you grow up, the images all show super-cool, well-tanned pirates shootin’ guns and havin’ funs. But then, “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker is glorified too.

The museum is very “meta”: It spotlights, and claims to critique, the glamorization of violence in which it participates. Some researcher truffled up a terrific Ford Motors advertising card from the Dillinger years, which reads, “When will they catch Dillinger?” on the front. On the back: “Not Until They Get Him Out of a Ford V-8!” The museum highlights the way the James Gang, and Bonnie and Clyde, sought to create their own legends—and mostly succeeded. A wall text reads, “In many cases, the public actually rooted for the bad guy,” before reassuring that “ultimately, the bad guys got what was coming to them….”

The museum’s attitude toward power is exemplified in the opening to the section on American punishment. You go through a doorway and on the wall there are brief tributes to prison wardens who were considered more humane than the norm: James Johnston, nicknamed “The Golden Rule Warden,” or Thomas Murton, who reformed Arkansas prisons after major abuse scandals. But as you’re trying to read these wall texts, a video plays on a loop in which a fake warden snarls like something out of a nightmare—or at least Cool Hand Luke

Within these walls, we are the law, and your freedom is just a memory. In your cell the sink and the toilet are exposed, and you will be too….Remember, no one put you here but yourself. You are now in my custody, and the life you had no longer exists.

Benevolent use of power is kinda sexy, in a dad-like way. We can all get behind those nice wardens. But abuse of power is really sexy. 

A big wheel on the wall says, “Hero or Villain? Turn the wheel to see if these legends were good guys or bad guys.” The wheel is broken.

There are things to notice in this museum, quiet hints of something. There’s a lot of glossed-over sadness in the description of the fatherless Barker Gang: “From the age of 10, [Alvin] Karpis ran with an ugly crowd of gamblers, bootleggers and pimps in his hometown of Topeka, Kansas. He spent time in reformatories, but his crimes only escalated. It was while doing time at the Kansas State Penitentiary that he met Fred Barker.” A lot of these criminals met their partners and learned the tricks of their illicit tradesin the prison system, but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

In other areas, hard truths are simply ignored. There’s a big serial killer section—where nobody seemed to linger—and the description of Jeffrey Dahmer talks about his victim who escaped and finally drew police attention to Dahmer’s murders. It doesn’t mention the earlier escapee who got to the cops but was returned to Dahmer, because cops sometimes look at drugged, nonwhite youths who say they’re fleeing a killer and shrug their shoulders. Domestic dispute. “But the law is on your side,” the stairwell voiceover reminds us.

The exhibit on police gear works hard to convince us that we are no longer living in “Medieval Times.” Cops use safe “compliance weapons” like tasers, pepper spray, and flashbangs. (“Cops Beat, Taser Man to Death: ‘They Just Weren’t Done Until He Was Dead’,” Daily Caller, May 15, 2014. “New Mexico Woman Sues Over Pepper-Sprayed Vagina,” Toronto Sun, November 28, 2013. “Georgia toddler critically injured by police’s flash grenade,” Washington Post, May 30, 2014.)

The museum’s good-citizen instincts are at war with its show-business urges. Sober text is often contradicted by flashy, misleading “interactives.” There’s a surprisingly solid display about the unreliability of eyewitness evidence, including discussion of the Innocence Project, which works to use DNA evidence to free wrongly-convicted prisoners. But this is followed by a crime-solving game where you “witness” a man running from an apartment, and the text is all about how memory is tricky and eyewitness evidence is shaky—and then the man in your video stops, the camera zooms in, and he stands there so you can get a good long look at him. Later, when you’re asked to give details about his appearance, the video replays first to help you out! I have a mind like a steel sieve, my memory is mostly made of wishful thinking, and I got every question right.(The only question I can remember was something along the lines of, “Did the man have long or short hair?”)

Similarly, the descriptions of actual famous prisons like Leavenworth and Attica, and some of the texts on prison history, include novelistic details and empathetic descriptions of prisoners’ suffering. There are glancing references to the horror of solitary confinement (today between 20,000 and 80,000 prisoners are in solitary, which the museum doesn’t mention—as always, cruelty is confined safely to the past) and the overall tone is one of pity for prisoners who were isolated, forbidden from speaking, or beaten by racist guards. The Leavenworth exhibit notes that inmates raised and collected money for the 9/11 Relief Fund after the attacks. The Attica display explains the 1971 riot by listing some of the abuses to which inmates were subjected, including assaults by guards, and vivid details like, “Inmates were only allowed one bucket of water per week as a ‘shower.’ They were issued one roll of toilet paper per month.”

But all of these text-heavy displays are hard to read, because the museum has seen fit to display them behind fake prison bars. In order to make the displays more visually appealing or more “branded,” the curators (if that’s the word I want) made it much less likely that anyone would actually read them, instead of skipping to the colorful display of prison tattoos. The prison history section, where I spent a lot of time, was almost empty.

Maybe the most interesting thing in the museum is its treatment of prisoners’ artwork. The text strains to ensure that we don’t identify with prisoners. They’ve been caught, so they’re helpless, rather than powerful like the pirates and gunmen we’re encouraged to admire. But this is our only sustained glimpse of prisoners as people who do things other than crime. There are intriguing bits about how you make art supplies in prison and a note that artists can earn as much respect as tough guys. Some of the art is crude, colorful, and moving: One prisoner’s “pano” or handkerchief art shows a sunlit woman holding a flower, the brightest painting you ever saw. Some of it is normal in the worst way: There’s two eagles crying over 9/11, and a kitsch painting of a soldier hugging his daughter as she clutches an American flag.

The museum is exhausting. You can learn to crack a safe, do a police training simulation, shoot carnival-style guns at an Old West-themed range, learn about the suit used in the Robocop movies, and on and on. I haven’t mentioned the autopsy table with the fake body, or the small quiet tribute to law-enforcement officers who died in the line of duty, or the bizarre text about Prohibition in Washington that doubles as an ad for local cocktail bars. I haven’t mentioned the various entertaining criminal knickknacks and attractions: Al Capone’s rosary, Bonnie and Clyde’s bullet-riddled “death car” (and Bonnie’s terrible, terrible poetry), quotations from Edmund Campion and Edmund Burke.

I gave up somewhere in the basement level, in the sprawling “CSI” section. I skipped the America’s Most Wanted wing.

And yet in this warren of sunny-side-up misery, so many things aren’t mentioned. There is one mention of “making amends,” in the description of a computer genius who, perhaps unwittingly, unleashed “the first computer worm.” Now he works on making Internet commerce secure. There’s nothing on restorative justice or on returning ex-offenders to their communities, no display on the enormous number of “collateral consequences” that can follow someone who has served his time, nothing on moms in lockup (about one in twenty-eight American children have a parent in prison; some of them have been on field trips to this place), nothing that even attempts to answer the question of whether incarceration reduces crime. No interactive exhibit asking which things you believe should be crimes—with the huge, unexplored exception of Prohibition, “crime” is treated as an Aristotelian natural kind rather than a category defined by the powerful. While there’s a graphic comparing recent incarceration rates in different states, there’s no graphic comparing the United States with other countries, even though we are the world’s leading jailers.

And for all its self-righteousness toward the guilty, the museum has virtually nothing about their victims, or about the experience of being a victim of crime. There’s nothing about trauma, recovery, the cycle of abuse (unless that sad depiction of the Barker Gang counts), forgiveness and reconciliation with the person who hurt you, or the debate over victims’ rights movements. Victims are not powerful.

In the gift shop you can buy JonBenét Ramsey’s father’s book, and Aileen Wuornos’s. There’s a onesie that says, I JUST SPENT NINE MONTHS IN SOLITARY, and a gun to shoot ketchup onto your hot dog. You can buy an official Museum of Crime and Punishment lanyard with your name, or with the message, GOD IS LOVE. 

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