A Day at DC's Creepiest Museum

Update: I'm super sad to report that the National Museum of Crime and Punishment closed in September, 2015. AND YEt This blog Still gets so many hits!! some other quirky museums I recommend:

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A "cadaver" laid out on an autopsy table. Medieval torture instruments that punctured and crushed fingers. The bullet-riddled car that once held the bodies of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.

On a beautiful summer day, I walked through the National Museum of Crime and Punishment and stared at some of the creepiest stuff on display in Washington, D.C. And it was fascinating. The National Museum of Crime and Punishment has done a great job of balancing our gruesome, pause-at-a-car-accident curiosity with the true curation, historical research and interactivity that makes for an enriching museum experience.

Located in the densely packed museum-and-restaurant area of the Penn Quarter, the Crime Museum seems to get overlooked for the more popular International Spy Museum down the street. It shouldn’t. Although a bit smaller, the Crime Museum offers plenty of bang for your 22 bucks.

The Crime Museum has three tales to tell as visitors wind through it: The first section focuses on crimes and criminals through the ages; the second focuses on punishment – the booking process, jails and law enforcement; and the final section focuses on case solving and modern forensic technologies. CSI fans will love this place.

Through each section is woven interactive elements for all ages. Young ones can test their cyber safety skills with hand-operated multiple-choice quizzes or they can tunnel out of a jail cell. Us older ones can gain more knowledge from the museum’s many interactive screens, participate in a lineup or we can try out our pursuit skills in a driving simulator.

What I like most about the museum – in all its creepiness – is its restraint. The boards soaked with Jesse James’ blood, John Dillinger’s death mask and the wall chunk from the St. Valentine's Day Massacre are all paired with careful, intelligent text that honors the items' place in our country’s history and minimizes the sensational. The section that I find the hardest to walk through, the one about modern-day mass murderers, is small and succinct, acknowledging the horrors we’ve witnessed without aggrandizing the killers. (Tucked into a corner, it’s also easily skipped if – like me – you want to keep the youngsters away from it.)

A Tour of the National Museum of Crime and Punishment

Crime Museum575 7th St. NW, Washington, DC 20004

In-Between Tip: After your dark trip through our nation's underbelly, refresh your spirits with a margarita at Jose Andres' light-filled Mexican restaurant Oyamel, which is just down the block on 7th St., NW. It's much easier to get a table at this festive restaurant with an inventive take on Mexican food during the day.  And did I mention the margaritas?