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Published September 28, 2010, 12:00 AM

'Crime Lab' exhibit invites everyone to give sleuthing a go

It was a scene that no family wants to come home to. But when the Johnsons returned from their recent vacation to Hawaii, they found that their home had been broken into and that a number of items, including a painting and music box, had been swiped.

It was a scene that no family wants to come home to.

But when the Johnsons returned from their recent vacation to Hawaii, they found that their home had been broken into and that a number of items, including a painting and music box, had been swiped.

An angry Dr. Jonathan Johnson told police, “I can’t believe they took the painting off the wall!”

Now it’s up to the people of Fargo-Moorhead to solve this crime.

The “Crime Lab Detectives” exhibit, which is on display at the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County at the Hjemkomst Center through Dec. 27, puts young people in the shoes of a detective equipped with the tools of forensic investigation.

At the beginning of the exhibit, a television news report by fictitious reporter Lois Lang describes the crime at the Johnson home. “Crime Lab Detective Notebooks” are piled on a table so visitors can record the information they’ll gather at the various evidence stations.

There’s DNA evidence to analyze and a crime scene to examine. In one part of the exhibit, fingerprints are on display with magnifying glasses so visitors can compare and contrast prints. Handwriting is there for analyzing, as are tool markings.

Several shoe soles are there, near shoeprint moldings taken at the crime scene. And written descriptions tell visitors about footprint analysis.

Near the middle of the exhibit, testimonies from the characters involved in the case play on a monitor. In one scene, Dr. Johnson’s wife cries as she talks about the sentimental value of the stolen music box. And his Pee-wee Herman-styled son says that he and his mother didn’t like the stolen painting and are glad it was among the nabbed items.

The exhibit is intended to demonstrate “that there is more to being a policeman than arresting the bad guy,” says Joel Gordon.

“Crime Lab Detectives,” which has been on tour for more than four years, is on loan from the Museum of Discovery in Little Rock, Ark., where Gordon is director of exhibits.

He says the display breaks down police forensics to a level that makes sense to children and laypeople.

And while the “Crime Lab Detective” exhibit is fun, it’s not just a good time. Genetics, chemistry and biology get rolled into something that’s a little like a life-size game of “Clue.”

Maureen Kelly Jonason, executive director of the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County, says, “I think it’s a science lesson in a visit basically.”

Plus the exhibit includes just a bit of the yuck factor some children love so much. There’s a maggot sample on display. But there’s a purpose for them.

Professional investigators examine fly larvae for clues about the timing of events. And exhibit visitors study a substance gathered during the investigation to determine whether it is blood.

“You have to use your deductive reasoning to figure out whodunit,” says Jonason.

“Crime Lab Detectives” does require some hard thinking, and it’s recommended that an adult work through the exhibit with the child.

That said, Jonason doesn’t think the exhibit is just for children. She calls it a “great learning experience for adults.”

As for the children, she’s noticed that they are quieter with this show than they typically are at the exhibits. She thinks it’s because they’re “intently looking and reading and thinking.”

“It’s well thought-out to be a little brain tease, I think,” Jonason says.

If you go

  • What: “Crime Lab Detectives” exhibit
  • When: Through Dec. 27
  • Where: The Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead
  • Info: Call (218) 299-5511


Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734

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