UA Museum’s ‘CSI Alabama’ to Display Science Behind TV Dramas

  • February 26th, 2007

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Americans seem to have an insatiable appetite for television dramas focusing on the scientific aspects of criminal investigations. An upcoming exhibit at The University of Alabama’s Alabama Museum of Natural History will give visitors a hands-on look at crime scene analysis and forensic investigations, minus the backlighting and Hollywood glitz.

The exhibit “CSI Alabama” opens March 2 in Smith Hall, on the UA campus. Dr. Keith Jacobi, curator of human osteology at the museum and a developer of the upcoming exhibit, said while TV shows, such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and its spin offs “CSI: Miami” and “CSI: NY,” have heightened the public’s interest in forensic work, the programs face challenges in making certain aspects realistic.

“They try to make it as accurate as they can, but they have to tell a story,” said Jacobi, who also serves as a resource for the state’s forensics laboratories, assisting them in identifying remains in homicides and other death investigations. “Not a lot of this work can be completed in 60 minutes. It takes a long time, and it takes so many different people from so many different specialties to solve a crime. It isn’t just four main people investigating the case like on a TV show. Also, a lot of police departments do not have the elaborate and flashy equipment that you see on TV.”

The UA exhibit attempts to focus on the science behind the glitz while dispelling some of the misnomers the public may have about criminal investigations. Visitors to the exhibit can expect to see the following during self-guided tours of the displays on the ground floor of Smith Hall:

  • Crime scene: A dummy will be displayed as the “victim,” evidence at the scene will be numbered, and information, including what the presence of insects can reveal to investigators about time of death, will be presented.
  • Autopsy: A table will be set up similar to an actual autopsy and the types of information that can be obtained from these medical procedures will be outlined.
  • Fingerprint/shoeprint analyses: Visitors may take their own fingerprints and learn how the investigative techniques are used. Prints from various types of shoe soles will be displayed, visitors can try and match shoes to the prints, and information such as what can be gleaned about a person’s gait will be presented.
  • The initial stage that begins a facial reconstruction will be displayed.
  • Canine units: Visitors will see some of the ways in which dogs’ powerful noses aid investigations.
  • Dental evidence
  • Ballistics

Actual skeletal remains, specifically approved for educational use, will be part of the exhibit.

In conjunction with the exhibit’s March 2 opening, Melissa Connor will give a talk on Thursday, March 1, “Human Rights Investigations and the Role of Forensic Archaeology,” beginning at 7:30 p.m. in the Biology Building Auditorium, room 127.

Jacobi, an assistant professor of anthropology in UA’s College of Arts and Sciences, said one drawback to the extensive television programming related to crime scene investigations is the sometimes unrealistic expectations they can generate among jurors.

“I think it hurts in that everyone expects DNA at a court case,” Jacobi said. “If you don’t have DNA, sometimes the case falls apart. You have sophisticated jurors who expect that something only can be solved through DNA involvement, and that makes them overlook other things which are very good evidence.”

On the flip side, the increased television exposure has led to more people at least briefly toying with the idea of a criminal investigations-related career. “I get phone calls from people wanting to go back to school – people who have been out a long time – because they want to do this,” said Jacobi.

Among the traits good crime scene investigators possess are patience, persistence and a strong desire to take various pieces of evidence and solve the unknown.

“You have to really want to figure out why something happened. You might not be able to do it yourself, but you can contribute with the other specialists to find the final picture,” said Jacobi.

Through skeletal analysis, Jacobi, an associate professor of anthropology at UA, says forensic anthropologists can offer clues as to the age, sex, ethnicity, stature, occupation, and health or cause of death of the person authorities are attempting to identify.

At the exhibit, computers will provide an interactive component that will allow visitors to use memory recall to attempt to recreate a suspect’s image using a software program called “Faces.” Visitors will have the opportunity to use the same computer program and go through a similar process that police investigators use to interview witnesses who are helping identify a suspect.

In a related event, on April 14, Mary Manhein, a forensic anthropologist at LSU who assists law enforcement in a variety of forensic issues, including using 3-D Clay Facial Reconstruction, will give a talk at UA.

Regular operating hours for the UA’s Alabama Museum of Natural History are Tuesday – Saturday, 10 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Admission is $2 for adults and $1 for children and seniors. To find out more information about the University Museums visit their web page at www.museums.ua.edu.

Editor’s Note: Visitors are advised to consider the subject matter before touring exhibit, particularly if they are considering bringing children younger than middle school age.

The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.