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Public Displays: breaking in the new law museum 

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It may be hard to keep an open mind about the new Museum of Law at the American Bar Association. After all, the legal system is usually associated with such things as jury duty, traffic tickets, time-consuming lawsuits, and potentially time-consuming prison sentences. What would lawyers put in a museum anyway? An homage to Balkin & Doran? A wax Judge Wapner? Exhibit A? Would there be interactive stuff, like push a button--get sued?

I went looking for the Hall of Travesties but instead found Norman Gross, the ABA's director of special projects and the party responsible for putting the place together. He showed me around the gift shop, conveniently located at the entrance to the museum. Could I buy a judge? I settled for a pencil with a double-sided eraser that made it look like a little gavel.

Gross said the museum hasn't had many visitors, though it's only been open for a few weeks. It's supposedly the first museum of its kind in the country and maybe the world. But why have one at all?

"There's been a tremendous interest in the law over the past few years," Gross explained, mentioning the popularity of Court TV and media coverage of recent high-profile trials. He was quick to point out that the museum isn't a commercial for lawyers. "This is not a lawyers' museum, but a museum of law," he said. "Its major objective is educational."

The premier exhibit at the nation's only law museum focuses on the history of the ABA. If education consists of acquiring facts that one didn't know before, it teaches plenty. How many people know that the ABA was founded in 1878 at Saratoga Springs, New York? Not many, I bet. (Why Saratoga Springs? It was the top vacation spot in the country.) Also, the ABA, which counted only 1,718 members in 1902, now totals more than 350,000 lawyers. Each of the four displays bolted to the walls outlines a different period in the group's evolution, presenting its case with a time line, charts, photos, a relic or two, and flip cards called "ABA Briefs." Gross wondered if I'd like to try to answer one of the briefs on the "Saratoga Era (1878-1902)." It asked, "What was the room rate at the first ABA meeting in Saratoga Springs in 1878?" I flipped the card. Three bucks. Who knew?

Gross said that education has always been a primary mission of the ABA; raising the standards of a legal education was among the first areas addressed by the group. But the idea of a museum honoring the rule of law is a slippery concept. The exhibit's relics are not particularly compelling. A painting of a meeting has some intrinsic value as a painting, but it isn't necessarily inspiring. You can push a button and hear a two-minute excerpt from an after-dinner speech by Winston Churchill, but if you can understand half of what he was slurring you'd be doing well.

You may not be enriched by learning that the top room rate for the 1995 ABA meeting in Chicago was $500, but it does make you think. The American legal system is the envy of the world, yet most Americans don't seem to like it much. The more familiar we've become with the legal system, the more we hold it in contempt. The reason seems to come not so much from the system as from the way lawyers often use the system.

Gross ambled over to the theater and showed a video of Bosnian judges crediting the ABA for providing volunteer assistance in crafting their new constitution. Maybe lawyers get a bum rap, I thought. We used to think of them as heroes, and now we regard them as a curse. What happened?

Gross had to go to a meeting. Except for the cashier in the gift shop, I was alone in the museum. I took a look at the time line in the display labeled "The Modern Era." The last entry read "1996: ABA opens Museum of Law." The entry preceding that one remarked on the O.J. Simpson trial.

The Museum of Law is located in the lobby of the ABA building, 750 N. Lake Shore Drive. It's open 11 to 2 Monday through Friday and 11 to 5 Saturday; admission is free. For more information, call 312-988-5000.

--Jeffrey Felshman

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Norman Gross photo by Eugene Zakuzilo.

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