The Rarity of Law Museums
Updated: Aug 2, 2021
In 2015, Ralph Nader opened the American Museum of Tort Law in a former coffin factory in Winsted, Connecticut. Considering there are over 95,000 museums across the world, many of which are devoted to bizarre subjects such as lawnmowers, dog collars, ramen, and toilets, this museum's tagline seems unbelievable: "The world's first museum dedicated to the law". Could Nader’s museum really be the first law museum and, if so, why did it take so long for one to appear?
There are plenty of "dark tourism" and criminological museums, including museums housed in prisons or related to famous crime movements like the Mob or Jack the Ripper. But museums focusing on civil law - which in this case means the law of civil wrongs in a common law context - have been almost completely overlooked. There are a few small exhibits, such as in the Smithsonian or the Supreme Court, but entire museums dedicated to the law are a relatively unexplored genre.
If not the first, Nader’s museum is indeed at least one of the first law museums and therefore presents a valuable opportunity to consider the ways in which legal ideas can and should be conveyed in a museum context. Nader spent seventeen years designing and raising enough money to open his museum, the mission of which is to “educate Americans on the benefits of tort law... not only for those injured but for everyone”. As the largest area of civil law, torts seem like a reasonable place to start.
At the same time, in the words of The New York Times, “who would want to visit a museum dedicated to the seemingly arcane topic of tort law?” Maybe this is why there have been so few attempts at creating law museums; they have the potential to appear uninteresting and therefore unlucrative.
With a non-profit status and a lengthy list of prominent donors, the Tort Museum does not seem to be concerned with finances. But as a law museum, it does face other significant challenges. For example, how can one possibly physically embody tort law in a museum context? The Tort Museum’s three galleries include collections of precedent-setting cases, more recent "significant cases", and "dangerous toys" that have sparked litigation due to their avoidable injuries to children. These toys, like the Little People Play Family School Bus and the Air Storm Firetek Bow, are among the very few physical objects in the museum. This is not surprising; while objects are usually important to a museum’s level of engagement with visitors, law is notoriously difficult to physically exemplify. This makes the museum’s use of objects, especially the toys, all the more impressive. According to Sokolove Law Firm, “Nader’s museum does not commemorate these objects but rather the legal system that supports the victims of these objects”. The museum brilliantly displays these toys as the evil child-killers against which heroic tort law must fight.
In addition to the toys, the museum utilises comic-style graphics, drawn by Pulitzer Prize winner Matt Wuerker, as its visual aids. Politico writes that “graphically depicting what happened” contributes to “valuable public education… Part of the reason for the museum’s success is the visual pop it achieves with outsized, dramatic illustrations of the cases”. In offering simplified narratives of the cases, the museum makes tort law less intimidating to its audience, which ranges from law students to children and adults who have never even heard of torts.
But in creating this simplified narrative to appeal to the public, the museum loses the important nuances of the law. Eisterhold Associates, the design firm that worked with Wuerker, explains, “the challenges were many… complicated fact patterns, missing or inaccessible supporting materials, fuzzy historical records and the sheer difficulty of showing someone not doing something”. For this reason, and in order to promote its message about the benefits of tort law, the museum has made significant curatorial decisions regarding the content of the cases and how they are presented.
The political message of the museum is that tort law is a saviour and that, due to the failures of the United States government in regulating greedy corporations, Americans must turn to tort law. A museum of law cannot avoid discussion of politics but the Tort Museum struggles in balancing this political message with opportunities for visitors to reflect upon, discuss, and question the role of torts in American society. The Tort Museum was designed by lawyers, and in some ways, it has been treated as a courtroom; an unbending argument presented to those with little legal knowledge aggressively permeates all aspects of communication, including the graphics, text, and content.
Through this one-way flow of knowledge, the museum misses an important opportunity to inspire change and improvements to tort law. Still, it is commendable that Nader has attempted and succeeded in creating one of the world’s only law museums. Hopefully more will appear despite the challenges they face. As a valuable tool of education, civil law museums have the remarkable power and responsibility of bringing legal discussions into the public realm.