Building Bridges with Stories: The National Law Enforcement Museum Uses Oral History to Connect to Citizenry

As an oral historian and museum professional, I’m always interested when museums use personal stories to highlight their exhibits. When I was commissioned to do interviews for the yet unbuilt National Law Enforcement Museum (based in Washington, D.C.), I was curious to find out what purpose, if any, these stories were going to serve outside of expanding the museum’s archives. So I contacted Jeni Ashton, Deputy Director at the Law Enforcement Museum, to speak with her about the museum’s goals, the staff’s decision to use oral histories, and their hopes for the future of this fledgling museum.


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Tell me a little bit about the National Law Enforcement Museum.


The National Law Enforcement Museum has been in production for about ten years now. We are a program of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which also maintains the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington, D.C. That memorial, which was founded in 1984, has more than 20,000 names of fallen officers inscribed on it. Every year, during National Police Week (the week of May 15), we do a candlelight vigil and engrave the names of the year’s fallen onto the memorial. 


In 2000, our Board decided to build a museum to tell the rest of the story: to honor the living and to, hopefully, build the bridge between citizens and law enforcement that would ultimately lead to a better understanding and safety for both sides. We plan to begin construction of the museum building this summer, which will lead us to a late 2016 or early 2017 opening.


How did you get involved with the museum?


I just happened to move to Washington D.C. because I was getting married and my husband was here. I’ve been with the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund for about seven years now. I started on the curatorial side, working with objects and exhibitions, and through those seven years I spent some time in development. I’ve now come back to the museum team as a deputy director, on the operations side. I have a Master’s in public history and my focus in graduate school and undergrad was American History post-Civil War, so I had no background in law enforcement. 


Did you have any interest in law enforcement beforehand?


Before I started working here, I didn’t have any feelings one way or another about law enforcement, but I’ve definitely grown much more to believe in and support them given what I’ve learned in the last few years. Without law enforcement, we would not be able to live the way we do. And sometimes it’s a very thankless job. I now see the need to educate citizenry to help build an understanding of what law enforcement does, the training they go through to do their jobs, and the fact that they serve an absolutely necessary function in our society. That’s something that I never really thought about before I took this job, but it’s definitely something that I now fully respect. So it’s been very interesting and eye-opening, to interact with law enforcement and learn more about their history. 


How did the museum decide to use oral history? 


Well, it first started when the Society of Former Agents of the FBI approached us about the oral histories they were collecting. We built a partnership with them and became the repository for all of those amazing interviews--these stories are available through our research center as well as online. We had always thought about doing oral histories ourselves, but we had never really done anything until that point. Our partnership with the Society inspired us to start our own oral history program. We don’t have that many stories outside of the FBI oral histories but we’re slowly working on it, very selectively reaching out to all levels of law enforcement, from foot patrol to sheriffs and commissioners.


Do you have an intended audience? 


Our museum is designed for the eighth grade and up. I think law enforcement officials will get something out of the oral histories, but it’s really more geared towards the general public.


How are the stories going to be presented?


In the museum itself, we plan to have a big AV presentation in one of our exhibits called Officers’ Stories. It will be a video monitor and headphones and the visitor can choose from a variety of different one- to two-minute stories in the officer’s voice: anything from why they became a cop, to the worst day they ever experienced, to the best day they ever experienced as an officer. We’ll select the stories from all levels of law enforcement, from all different areas of the country, men and women. It’ll be very diverse and the story selections will be in rotation. The full oral histories will all be available on our website and through the research center as well. 


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What do you think oral histories add to your museum?


Oral histories add that very special piece of authenticity to our story. Reading exhibit texts, there’s somewhat of a separation between the visitor and the information. But being able to hear the officer tell a story in their voice makes it much more tangible and much more human to the audience. I hope it helps to make them more real to people who may not have had a relationship with law enforcement except for getting a ticket.


 A lot of people’s only interaction with law enforcement is in getting pulled over. It’s a mostly negative interaction: “Oh, I got to go pay this ticket because that guy wouldn’t let me off.” What I hope is that, through these oral histories, the emotion will come through for the visitors--through those really sweet stories or those really terrifying ones--and the fact that they are human will sink in. They feel just like us. They think just like us.


Finally, can you give an example of any stories you’ve collected that have particularly struck you?


Yes, so we did an interview with a former FBI agent named Jana Monroe in conjunction with our Witness to History panel discussion on the Green River Killer. She was in the early FBI profiling unit and she was there for quite a long time. 


At one point, the interviewer asked her when she knew it was time to leave the FBI. She said she was working in Florida on a case where these people would break into a house and find a weapon within the house and then assault or murder the victim in their own home with their own stuff. So she would come home and take her knife drawer out and put the knives in her dryer in the basement because she thought that would make her safe. When her husband, who also an FBI agent and was in Waco at the time, came back, he called her up and said “I’m trying to make a sandwich and I thought we had silverware and knives.” She told them where they were and he said, “When you get home, we need to talk.” She said that’s when she realized it was time for her to leave. 


That’s just one example of an amazing story that gets to the stress of law enforcement, especially in a job like that where you’re working horrible cases every day and you become so involved you can’t separate it from your own life. It’s also a great example of how, like I said, at the end of the day law enforcement officials are human, just like us. 


For more information, visit www.lawenforcementmuseum.org.


SY Choung is an independent oral historian and media maker living and working in Brooklyn, NY. For more information about her work, please visit sychoung.com.