Museum #3: The Newseum

Boyfriend and I have been living in the area long enough to remember the Newseum in its first incarnation in Rosslyn, VA, just across the Potomac from DC–which, amusingly, would be within walking distance of our current respective houses. The folks at the Freedom Forum, the organization that promotes free speech and freedom of the press that serves as the Newseum’s primary funder, have managed to secure a fabulous piece of real estate for the new Newseum: 555 Pennsylvania Avenue, with vistas overlooking the Mall and the Capitol.

Newseum

The Newseum. Picture courtesy of the New York Times

Fortunately, this fact was not lost on the people who designed the exhibits.  After visitors exit the gigantic glass elevators on the sixth floor (yes, sixth. Another huge museum.) the panorama of Pennsylvania Avenue is spread out before them through floor-to-ceiling glass windows and accessible via a balcony.  Not only does the Capitol vista make a great background for pictures, the museum also uses the city itself as an artifact.  The balcony along the avenue tells the story of “America’s Main Street” in words and pictures, from its humble beginnings as a pig-infested muddy road to the parade route for inaugurations and protests alike.  For locals who use Pennsylvania Avenue as a regular thoroughfare, this exhibit added a touch of magic and historical gravitas to one of the great diagonal streets. If it’s warm enough out, make sure you get out on the balcony for the exhibit (and the photo).

The Newseum is one of the few museums in Washington, DC, that charges admission. They seem to be quite proud of the fact that they do not take federal money, saying so prominently near their postings of ticket prices.  In a city with so many museums that are either entirely free or do not charge admission to see their permanent collections, this museum had better be worth the $20 it costs for one adult admission. (Given the size of the museum, it’s a good thing each ticket is valid for two consecutive days.) The private funders who support the Newseum are featured throughout the museum, next to the exhibits that are named for them, by way of touch-screen video presentations.  While this is an interesting way to provide more information about your funders, don’t spend too much time on any of these–what you actually want to see is in the exhibits, not outside them.

One of the issues that Boyfriend and I have been discussing rather heatedly in the week since we went to the Newseum is the nature of the “artifact” materials they present. Boyfriend goes to museums in search of tangible things, seeking, as he says, experiences he can’t have anywhere else or objects he can’t find anywhere else. In the case of the Newseum, a museum devoted to news media, this is a rather tough standard. After all, a lot of the news that is presented can be found in a quick internet search for video clips or of newspaper archives. Why should I bother schlepping out to downtown DC if I can find all of this from the warmth and comfort of my own home, especially if it’s the middle of January?

If we take the media itself as an artifact–a television broadcast (the JFK/Nixon debates, Nixon’s speeches during the Watergate scandal–most things related to Nixon, come to think of it, for 20-somethings like us), a radio program (the Edward R. Murrow broadcasts from the Second World War that are featured during the “4-D” movie), information that exists in ones and zeroes or over the airwaves rather than on paper or in a format we can hold–then this place is chock full of them, and, unlike how we would find them on the internet, they are curated and placed, to a certain extent, in their context within history and the larger scope of journalism. This is where Boyfriend and I differ, but I don’t think our respective feelings on the matter changed our overall notions about the museum.

Like I’ve mentioned before, Boyfriend and I also feel very differently about technology in general, and there’s a lot of it in the Newseum. There are fifteen video screens, five of them off of one exhibit. Touchscreens abound, whether providing a closer look at documents, playing broadcast footage from newscasts, or allowing visitors to cast their votes on questions about journalistic freedom and journalism on the internet. This is an area that I’m exploring with one of my graduate classes this semester, and I enjoy the fact that there is a space in the museum for visitors to share their opinions on big issues and see how other visitors before them have viewed the same questions. Boyfriend questions if you couldn’t make better use of the space by moving them online only. Readers, what say you? How do you feel about using technology in museums to do things other than impart information?

As it turns out, our recommendations for exhibits are the ones that have artifacts in a traditional sense. Who knew?

The Newseum in a Nutshell: Museums365’s Top Five

  • Today’s Front Pages

Don’t miss this one because, well, you can’t miss it.  A front page from a newspaper from each state in the USA is displayed in full color outside the Newseum along Pennsylvania Avenue, and several more, as well as papers from other countries, are displayed on the sixth floor across from the Pennsylvania Avenue vista. Fascinating to see how the news is reported across the world and what is important where. I came to see this–the outside part, anyway–long before I went to the Newseum proper: once on the day after Election Day 2008, and once on the day after Inauguration Day 2009, both times with my camera, and both times I was not alone. More than the news as artifact here, this is news as community-builder. If you can’t go in, at least take a swing by and see what the nation has to say for itself–and see who else has come to look with you.

  • News History Gallery

By far the largest exhibition space in the Newseum, and the most content-heavy. Don’t be foiled by the fact that it’s on the mysterious fifth floor–resist the urge to turn back down the stairs after you get off the elevator on the sixth floor and immediately head back down to the 9/11 exhibit on the fourth floor just yet. Take a left, then a right, go past the newspapers, and continue around to the right. In the center of this large, dark gallery is a display case with three-deep pull-out drawers, each with an artifact newspaper going back to the origin of print and ending in 2008. Around the center are artifact cases, heavy on text and heavy on issues. What does freedom of the press mean? What happens when government gets in the way? What about when it gets in the way of military operations? What does Steven Colbert have to say about the Newseum? Don’t miss the section about Watergate, and spend your time in the gallery, rather than in the four theatres that come off it. This exhibit deserves even more space and prominence in the museum.

  • G-Men and Journalists (temporary, but extended through 2011, thank goodness)

The Newseum is a museum with a mission: “educate the public about the value of a free press in a free society.” With sponsorship from many news companies, despite the stated independence from any of them, it is difficult not to have this mission come out in exhibits that talk about how great journalists and the media are, and often the exhibits tend to self-aggrandizement in this regard. Not so “G-Men and Journalists,” which explores the complicated relationship between the FBI and the news media in the FBI’s first hundred years. Much of what struck me so deeply about this exhibit was that, having grown up largely in Montgomery County, Maryland, Boyfriend and I were both in high school during the D.C. sniper shootings–and here was an exhibit, or part of an exhibit, about my neighbors and county-mates, how we lived in fear for a month during my junior year.  The exhibit did not shy away from the “white box truck” rumor (supposedly the sniper was shooting people from a white box truck) spread by the media that wound up interfering with the process of tracking down the snipers, who were eventually found in a blue sedan, the back of which is exhibited in the Newseum. Indeed, the whole exhibit is presented even-handedly and candidly discusses issues of news media and crime. The Unabomber’s cabin is down here as well.

  • September 11th

I bawled. Boyfriend clenched his fists. On one side, a wall with newspaper headlines from September 12, 2001, including the San Francisco Chronicle: “Bastards!” In the middle, the twisted, burned, battered antenna from the World Trade Center, surrounded by a timeline of that day. Behind the wall of news, a ten-minute video about journalists covering 9/11–which turned out to be the first time I’d seen footage of the second plane hitting the tower, having avoided watching the news for a long time after the attacks. Watch the little ones. Boyfriend and I would like to see this someday be incorporated into a larger exhibit on the role of the news media, since there does seem to be a decent amount of jingoism at play here, but for now, less than ten years out, it’s enough just to go, reflect on that awful day, and ponder the wreckage of the antenna.

  • Berlin Wall

The exhibit itself? Love it or leave it. “Electronic labels” tell the story of the wall as artifact and in its historical context via film and audio, but that’s not the story here. Look at the wall as you enter, graffiti’d and hopeful and full of color. Now go to the other side. The wall is blank. Look behind you. That’s a guard tower, watching you watching the blank wall. Now consider what it meant to live in East Berlin before 1989. This is an artifact, this was a way of life. The wall itself speaks loud and clear.

For the Wee’uns

  • NBC interactive newsroom

Think you have what it takes to be part of a news team? Try out your skills here, through touchscreens and the “Be a News Reporter” interactive station where you get to read the news.

  • Five Freedoms gallery

Learn about the five freedoms of the First Amendment (speech, press, religion, assembly, petition), the cases that have challenged them, and what they look like today. Test your knowledge of how far these freedoms go.

  • First Dogs

Boyfriend hates puppies. Rather, he doesn’t think this exhibit has any place in the Newseum. But hey, it’s a heavy museum in a lot of ways, so why not have a little levity (and some really cute presidential pooches)?

I’ll be going back at the end of the month, so stay tuned for updates to this post.

Metro stop: Archives/Navy Memorial/Penn Quarter (Yellow/Green line)

Hours: 9 am-5 pm

On the web: http://www.newseum.org

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About museums365

Museum educator, space lover, baseball fan, citizen history rabble-rouser.

Posted on January 31, 2010, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Well, now you live within walking distance of Artisphere!

    I love puppies.

    There were a few months when my commute to work included walking along Pennsylvania Avenue past the front pages on display outside the Newseum. I always loved slowing down a little bit here and browsing the headlines. On 2/29/08, it seemed that every newspaper in the country had a front page article about some local person with a leap day birthday.

  2. I’m commenting again, long after you wrote this post, since it was interesting to reread what you wrote about what is now my workplace.

    The FBI exhibit has been further extended, though the Sniper artifacts were replaced (before I began working there) with 9/11 artifacts. This was done in advance of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. In fact, there are 9/11-related things to see throughout the Newseum (FBI Gallery on Concourse, Pulitzer Gallery on Level 1, video clips on Level 3, 9/11 Gallery on Level 4, and historic front pages on Level 5).

    The News History Gallery is necessarily a bit un-prominent because low light is needed to preserve the paper artifacts, but having it so difficult to find is *not* necessary and is an unfortunate byproduct of the building design. My job yesterday morning was to be on Level 5, and much of what I did was let visitors know they were now on Level 5, and how to get to Level 4 when they were ready.

    I disagree about the five mini-theaters on Level 5. The civil rights film is very informative, and the film Getting It Right is heartwrenching. (Yes, some of the other short films are a little hokier though.) Basically, I would recommend allowing enough time on Level 5 for newspapers AND the displays in glass cases along the edges AND a couple of the short movies.

    And I disagree with your boyfriend about First Dogs, because dogs are awesome and should be featured in every museum! :-p

    If you haven’t seen the 55-minute documentary on the Holocaust and the press, I highly recommend that you do. It plays at 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays only.

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