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Back to Archives | Back to May 2008 Contents 

Chicago Museum Exhibit Hits the Bull's-Eye: Target America Shows Damages of Drugs, Builds Partnerships

By Michele Leonhart, Acting Administrator, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Washington, D.C.

f you had 30 minutes to show people the consequences and dangers of drugs, to convince them how much damage drugs do to both users and so many innocent victims along the way, how would you do it? Show them pictures of a brain or lungs damaged by drugs? Would you drive them to a crack house? A meth lab? Introduce them to addicts struggling to regain their lives? Maybe you would even show them pictures of law enforcement officers slain by drug traffickers. It would be a tall order to accomplish that visually and powerfully in such a small amount of time.

But the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has managed to do all of that and more in a dynamic, graphic, and chillingly realistic exhibit called Target America: Opening Eyes to the Damage Drugs Cause.

Visitors enter a strange world, one that within a few steps takes them from a coca lab, seized in the Colombian jungle, that shows the environmental damage and human toll caused by massive coca cultivation and processing to the opium poppy fields of Afghanistan, half a world away. Here they see how opium is processed into heroin and also see a Taliban tax receipt for opium. Then visitors are brought back to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, with rubble from the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—reminding us of the tragic reality of narco-terrorism (see figure 1).

Next, a mock motel room doubling as a volatile methamphetamine lab shows the impact of that drug on the unsuspecting public. Visitors can then step into a room, littered with used needles and other paraphernalia, in a crack house or into an interactive exhibit simulating brain imaging technology used to see the effects of drugs on the brain. If that isn’t enough, they can walk right up to a wrecked 1994 Ford Thunderbird whose driver, high on drugs, killed a young mother one Saturday morning in Ohio.

And finally, visitors come face to face with pictures of innocent children killed in drug-related violence, teenagers and young adults whose lives drugs stole away, and law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty protecting the United States from drugs.

This traveling exhibit, the only one of its kind in the United States, has wowed visitors—around five million so far—around the country over the past five years, opening the eyes of students; bringing home the message to even the most hardened; and touching addicts, parents, and tourists alike. The DEA Museum exhibit’s most recent stop was in Chicago; in just four months during 2006, more than 250,000 people visited it during its stay at the Museum of Science and Industry. The stop in Chicago broke all attendance records for the exhibit and received rave reviews and critical acclaim. In fact, plans are in the works to have a piece of the exhibit stay behind to help create a new Chicago Police Museum.

Figure1. Visitors at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry view rubble from the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the part of the Target America exhibit on narco-terriorism

How It All Began

Development began on the exhibit soon after September 11, 2001. Its original focus was on the link between drugs and terrorism and helping the public understand that illegal drug revenue funds terrorist organizations. The exhibit opened at DEA headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, a few days before the one-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks and was very well received. But the DEA Museum Foundation and the DEA itself wondered if the exhibit had to be limited only to those people who travel to the Washington, D.C., area. Why not take the show on the road? The DEA and the Museum Foundation aimed high, moving the exhibit out to Dallas, Texas, and then to Omaha, Nebraska. Then they had the idea of bringing the exhibit right into the heart of New York City on the third anniversary of the September 11 attacks, and prime real estate was found right in Times Square. After that, the exhibit moved to Detroit for six months.

The link to terrorism is just one of many often misunderstood or unspoken consequences of drug use. The DEA and the foundation decided to expand the focus to highlight all the various consequences of illicit drugs. It was this expanded version, which included the many other costs to society beyond the link to terrorism—costs to children, the environment, the body, and communities—that debuted in Times Square in September 2004. The exhibit, which had always been popular, now garnered national attention. It was even highlighted in a USA Today article.1 Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley saw that article and immediately expressed interest in bringing the exhibit to Chicago. Two years later, then Chicago Police Department (CPD) superintendent Philip Cline and then DEA administrator Karen Tandy stood beside Mayor Daley and cut the ribbon to open the Target America exhibit in Chicago.

The Chicago Story

When the exhibit opened to the public in August 2006, it filled nearly 10,000 square feet of exhibit space and featured 10 different sections that outlined the costs of illegal drugs on society. An impressive 1,100 square feet of the Target America exhibit was dedicated to telling the “Chicago Story,” a retrospective of nearly 100 years of drugs and drug law enforcement in Chicago. This portion was created entirely by the DEA’s Chicago Division and the CPD.

CPD officers and DEA agents worked shoulder to shoulder, searching through archives, reaching out to retirees in the area to find items—photos, news clippings, and so on—that would bring Chicago’s crime-fighting history to life. The Chicago Crime Commission also generously opened its archives. In the “attics” of the commission and other organizations, DEA Museum staff found a treasure trove of truly valuable artifacts to use in the local-story exhibit: an old morphine bottle from the turn of the century, one of the first police call boxes that once graced Chicago streets, and original CPD handcuffs.

Many of the artifacts in this section were on loan from the Motorola Corporation, a major sponsor of the Chicago exhibit, whose corporate headquarters and archives are located in that city. In addition, the exhibit, in keeping with the main themes of the Museum of Science and Industry, also emphasized the importance of ever-evolving technology in drug law enforcement. For example, both high-tech and low-tech tools of the trade were highlighted, and outdated equipment was juxtaposed with its modern-day equivalent: the old Nagra recorder was contrasted with a modern wire transmitter; the billy club was next to a stun gun; and large cameras mounted on telephone poles were compared with the tiny digital cameras used today.

Chicago Community Works Together

Figure 2. Street banners advertise the Target America exhibit along Chicago's "Magnificent Mile," Michigan Avenue.
One of the first steps for the Target America exhibit was to raise public awareness about it. Working with the staff at the Museum of Science and Industry, the DEA and the CPD created an Exhibit Advisory Committee that included civic, corporate, law enforcement, and drug prevention and treatment leaders from major stakeholder organizations around Chicago. The resulting group of more than 50 people represented a diverse collection of companies and government agencies with a shared commitment to bring the drug issue to the public’s attention. The Advisory Committee helped the DEA and the CPD by educating constituents about the Target America exhibit coming to Chicago and its value in antidrug education efforts.

“It was an honor for us to be involved with this exhibit and help tell the story of the long history of drugs in Chicago to our audience,” said NBC 5 Chicago general manager Larry Wert, a member of the exhibit’s Advisory Committee and a media sponsor. He added, “We wanted to make everyone aware that, while the drug problem is a critical one, there are ways to make a difference and education is a key.” NBC 5 provided extensive coverage of the exhibit opening, donated air time for public service announcements, and produced an hour-long town hall meeting during the opening months of the exhibit in Chicago. NBC 5’s coverage of Target America went on to win an Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement for Informational Program–Public Affairs/Current Affairs.

The DEA Museum Foundation also brought together more than 20 corporations and foundations to raise the money needed to bring the exhibit to Chicago and operate it for four months at the Museum of Science and Industry. They worked closely together for nine months to turn Mayor Daley’s dream into a successful reality. “We couldn’t have done this exhibit or achieved the level of success we did in Chicago without these sponsors,” said Bill Alden, president of the DEA Museum Foundation.

The corporate support was headed by McDonald’s, the lead exhibit sponsor. “One has only to look around to see the immense damage and devastation drugs have caused in our society. McDonald’s is proud to present Target America; it is both relevant and compelling,” said Jim Skinner, chief executive officer of McDonald’s Corporation.

Stories of Achievement

In the exhibit comment book, one visitor told of growing up in Cabrini Green in Chicago and of personally knowing Larry Hoover, the leader of the Gangster Disciples, a violent drug trafficking gang in Chicago. Her entire family, including her mother, got their drugs from Hoover. Her brother took the blame for one of the murders Hoover committed and went to jail for 12 years. These actions gained him status within the gang. The woman worked hard to escape the fate of her family. She said that as a kid she hid in the closet and read all day because she wanted nothing to do with drugs. She gradually got away, got an education, and now has a nice home with children who are not involved with drugs. Not only was she a visitor at the museum, but she also was an exhibit tour guide, helping to spread the message of the consequences of drugs to others.

Also, many visitors to the museum were members of the CPD or other law enforcement agencies. They were proud to see their successful cases highlighted, and officers new to the job were inspired by stories of past success.

Stories of Loss

A particularly moving section of the exhibit is titled Lost Talent. It featured the faces of hundreds of people—celebrities and everyday people of all ages and backgrounds, including children—who have been lost to drugs over the years (see figure 3). Visitors were so affected by these personal stories that some wept openly at the exhibit. This portion had special meaning to the loved ones of those lost. Many left behind tokens of their grief—letters, poems, and photographs—similar to the mementos brought to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Figure 3. A view of the section of the Target America exhibit that focuses on the effects of illegal drugs on the body and brain. The Lost Talent exhibit is at left.
The DEA and the CPD are very proud that a segment of the Lost Talent exhibit honored and remembered drug law enforcement personnel killed in the line of duty. It was a way for the two organizations to pay tribute to their colleagues who sacrificed everything for this important fight, and it brought some measure of comfort to their survivors—parents, children, spouses, and friends—to see their loved ones so honored.

Don and Mary Kay Balchunas visited the exhibit in Chicago and wrote in the visitors book, “Our son, Jay Balchunas, was a DEA Task Force Officer who was killed in the line of duty 11-05-04 in Milwaukee, WI. Thank you for bringing this exhibit to Chicago. It is an important step in the war against drugs.”

Stories of Hope

The impact of the exhibit can be understood through the comments of visitors, many of them young children, who left encouraging messages about their reactions to the exhibit in the museum guest book. There was a visitor from Germany who wrote, “This was a good experience for me to see. I feel seeing this will help others in the world to stop and think about what they do. I think this will help America be a drug-free [part of the] world.” There was a sweet and encouraging message from a young student (though not one that Chicago area schools would appreciate): “This is the greatest place on Earth. I've learned so much in one day. I've learned more here than I've learned at school.”

Those who learned about the consequences of drugs the hard way—through personal use—also visited and offered comments: “I can only hope that a lot of young people see this. Drugs took away my youth. I now have [sic] over a year and a half clean. . . . It’s all about education.” Jenni from Milwaukee wrote, “I’m a recovering heroin addict . . . I’m going to school to be a drug counselor. This exhibit gives me chills due to the reality of it.” A visitor from Las Vegas wrote, “I’m a grateful, recovering addict . . . and being at this exhibit has been a very scary reminder of what I have waiting for me if I go back to using.”

Success in Partnerships

There’s no way of measuring the value of the connections made between the citizens of Chicago and the CPD officers and DEA agents who are working so hard to keep their city safe. “One way for police to interact with the community is to walk the beat,” said Alden of the DEA Museum Foundation. “Another way is host an exhibit like this.”

It was also an opportunity for the law enforcement community to collaborate with representatives of local faith groups and nonprofit foundations, civic leaders, and corporate groups: McDonald’s, the Chicago Sun-Times, and religious leaders working together shoulder to shoulder. This was an all too rare convergence of the public and private sectors working toward a common goal. The result was not only an incredible exhibit but also lasting friendships that will undoubtedly be a valuable asset in the future.

In addition, the Chicago Crime Commission publicly acknowledged the success of the partnerships in recognizing the DEA and the Museum for Science and Industry with its Star of Distinction award and McDonald’s with its Corporate Award for bringing the educational exhibit to Chicago.

Leaving a Legacy

The DEA donated an 1,100–square foot portion of the exhibit to the CPD. This “Chicago Story” portion of the exhibit has remained behind at the Navy Pier, one of Chicago’s most visited tourist spots. Four million visitors—Chicago citizens and tourists from all over the world—have seen it during its stay. By all measures, the exhibit has been a great success in Chicago. Said former CPD superintendent Phil Cline, who served as cochairman of the Chicago Story portion of the exhibit, “It has been an exciting project . . . . I think it is a tremendous success and more importantly, it is an important message for kids in our community . . . help[ing] us to sway kids from getting involved with drugs in the first place.” Plans are forming now to incorporate the Chicago Story exhibit into a new Chicago Police Museum.

On the Road Again

According to DEA Museum director Sean Fearns, Chicago set the “gold standard” for all other host cities to follow—from the extraordinary cooperation involved to the historic size and detail of the local-story portion, to the record-breaking attendance. Next up is Los Angeles: Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger are joining together as honorary cochairs for this exhibit, which is slated to open in October 2008 at the California Science Center. Discussions are under way to then take the exhibit to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California.

But the traveling museum will not stop there. The DEA and the DEA Museum hope that public officials across the United States are reading this article right now and feeling just like Mayor Daley felt when he read USA Today, thinking that this exhibit would be perfect for their city. For more information on Target America: Opening Eyes to the Damage Drugs Cause and how it may benefit your community, please contact Sean Fearns, director of the DEA Museum and Visitors Center, at 202-307-3463 or visit the exhibit Web site at or the DEA Museum Web site at ■   


1Donna Leinwand, “Exhibit Links Terror,Drug Traffic,” USA Today, September 13, 2004.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXV, no. 5, May 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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