Culture: Made Museum
Make that remade, as the Mob Museum debuts a strikingly interactive — and maybe a bit controversial? — renovation
Everyone calls it the Mob Museum, but the other half of its mission — technically, it’s the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement — will see its share of the spotlight grow come February 14, when the museum debuts a $9.2 million renovation. Two major new interactive exhibits, a forensic lab and a use-of-force training scenario, will take visitors deep into vital aspects of law enforcement. A third, a 16-foot touch-screen wall loaded with text, photos, and video, explores contemporary manifestations of organized crime, from drug cartels to the Yakuza. All are significant upgrades, educationally, and in terms of interactivity — the use-of-force attraction will position users as a police officer with a (laser) gun, not only in a digital scenario, but in a live-action situation. More notoriously, the museum will open a distillery and speakeasy in its basement come April. We asked Executive Director Jonathan Ullman if there was an overall goal for the remodel that helped him decide what new exhibits to include.
Was there an overall goal for the remodel that helped you decide what new exhibits to include?
That process actually started back in the summer of 2014. We’ve known for years that we wanted to be refreshing the exhibits to update the stories we tell, and give people more reasons to come back. And then delve into other topics that we weren’t covering. And the opportunities for us to make it a more comfortable visit, and a longer visit, provide other amenities like food and drink, places for people to sit. Many other museums, as I’m sure you realize, have different, separately ticketed experiences in which you can add elements to a visit, make it more robust, and also generate additional revenue.
And so one overarching goal is, how do you properly end the narrative about traditional organized crime in America in the 20th century? The exhibition space we’ve had since opening did a nice job of extending the story into the legacy of the mob, and how it continues to manifest in popular culture, in particular. But we recognize that there is a better way to kind of put a bow on that traditional 20th-century mob story. One thing that is very important to us is to find ways to make the content and the opportunities to educate the public truly relevant. One way you do that is to make certain you’re addressing more contemporary issues. So it is natural that we create a larger exhibition space devoted to organized crime today.
When I heard about some of the exhibits — crime lab, use-of-force training — my first thought was, They’re trying to get past the “romance of the mob” phase.
I think it was more about how you continue the narrative. To have this story just stop — you don’t want to stop at 1990, because that leaves you with the giant question of, well, what happened next?
Looking at the actions of Mexican drug cartels today, for example. Being able to see the reality of it now also reminds us that there’s nothing romantic about the violence that occurred as a result of organized crime in the 20th century. We’ve had a lot of popular-culture influence and a lot of distance or separation that makes us sometimes think that that was some kind of kinder, gentler organized crime. But there was an awful lot of violence in the 20th century that isn’t romantic and shouldn’t be admired.
Let’s talk about the shooting simulator.
First and foremost, it’s not a shooting simulator, though I can understand where you might think that. There are two components to that area. One is the training experience; the other are the exhibits that address issues and information related to use of force.
We had firearm training simulators when we first opened; there wasn’t a lot of context that went around that. You can’t minimize or exclude use of force as a component of how law enforcement does what it does. So certainly it’s very, very relevant. But we don’t just stop there. It’s not just about conveying information because it’s compelling and interesting — it’s also about how you apply this information. What’s the takeaway that makes you think differently about the world?
Are you prepared for any controversy?
If we are doing this properly, it will make people think, and it may create different reactions. But, from our perspective, that’s not a reason to shy away from it. If anything, it’s a reason why you need to help shed more light on what’s important for people to understand to be able to formulate informed opinions about when force is or is not appropriate.
I can see a critic saying that you’re positioning the museum-goer to be sympathetic to the officer using force, rather than the person who might wrongly or rightly be at the receiving end of it.
We know there’s no way to avoid people coming in with certain beliefs and perhaps taking issue. So this can be a way not just of providing people with the perspective of the officer, but also understanding that training is really important, and good training can help minimize bad outcomes.
And the exhibits that surround this experience touch on things like racial disparity. We address topics like implicit bias, perceptual bias, and other things that affect officers’ ability to make good decisions. What we’re ultimately hoping is for the general public to understand the complexity. But also understand that there are opportunities to make this better.
Looking ahead to April, are you breaking new ground by having the speakeasy and distillery in your basement?
We’re not the first museum to have a distillery. I think we’re probably the first museum to have a distillery and a speakeasy. ( Laughs)
When we thought about how we would do this, we came at it from, you know, content is king. It’s got to be an educational experience. So thinking about what narrative to continue into this space, a speakeasy is a no-brainer. We talk (elsewhere in the museum) about Prohibition as being an era in which organized crime took off, amassed great wealth, and used that wealth to seed its expansion. But there’s so much more we could be covering about that. Speakeasy culture is compelling, but there’s also the smuggling, bootlegging, and manufacturing that we can address in the context of the distillery. So it provides that exhibit experience.
Interview edited for length and clarity