The University of Alabama

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

By Chris Bryant

A wooded “crime scene” is one aspect of the CSI Alabama exhibit on display in UA’s Alabama Museum of Natural History within Smith Hall. Visitors are advised to consider the subject matter before touring exhibit, particularly if they are considering bringing young children. (photo by Rickey Yanaura)

A wooded “crime scene” is one aspect of the CSI Alabama exhibit on display in UA’s Alabama Museum of Natural History within Smith Hall. Visitors are advised to consider the subject matter before touring exhibit, particularly if they are considering bringing young children. (photo by Rickey Yanaura)

Americans seem to have an insatiable appetite for television dramas focusing on the scientific aspects of criminal investigations. A new exhibit at UA’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” opened this month in Smith Hall. Dr. Keith Jacobi, curator of human osteology at the museum and a developer of the 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 is displayed as the “victim,” evidence at the scene is numbered, and informa tion, including what the presence of insects can reveal to investigators about time of death, is presented.
  • Autopsy: A table is set up similar to an actual autopsy and the types of information that can be obtained from these medical procedures is 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 are displayed, visitors can try and match shoes to the prints, and information such as what can be gleaned about a person’s gait is presented.
  • The initial stage that begins a facial reconstruction is displayed.
  • Canine units: Visitors will see some of the ways in which dogs’ powerful noses aid investigations.
  • Dental evidence
  • Ballistics
Dr. Keith Jacobi adjusts an evidence marker prior to the opening of a “CSI Alabama,” an exhibit giving visitors a hands-on look at crime scene analysis and forensic investigations. (photo by Rickey Yanaura)

Dr. Keith Jacobi adjusts an evidence marker prior to the opening of a “CSI Alabama,” an exhibit giving visitors a hands-on look at crime scene analysis and forensic investigations. (photo by Rickey Yanaura)

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

Jacobi, an assistant professor of anthropology, 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 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.

Through skeletal analysis, Jacobi 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 provide an interactive component that allows visitors to use memory recall to attempt to recreate a suspect’s image using a software program called “Faces.”

Operating hours for the 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. For more information about the University Museums visit their Web page at www.museums.ua.edu.