A News Kind of Museum


Beyond the Headlines, Newseum Has Substance, Style

Downtown Washington, bustling as never before, has also been getting a big cultural boost in recent years. In addition to new theaters such as the Sidney Harman Hall and the Woolly Mammoth Theatre, downtown is becoming rich with museums, and we’re not just talking staples such as the National Gallery of Art and Smithsonian museums around the National Mall.

In the span of a few years, four new museums have opened in close proximity to each other in the downtown area, all of them coming with a hefty price tag and all geared strongly toward the burgeoning tourist presence. And that’s not even counting the Reynolds Center, home of the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which recently reopened after a lavish and spectacular renovation.

But the pioneer in this downtown revitalization was the International Spy Museum, a glitzy, interactive tourist hotspot that bills itself as the only public museum in the United States solely dedicated to espionage, with a dramatic, colorful collection of artifacts to boot. The Spy Museum opened in the summer of 2002 across the street from the Reynolds Center in the Penn Quarter neighborhood with big, snaking lines, and business continues to be brisk six years later.

Last year saw the opening of Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, the Washington version of the popular, interactive funhouse of famous figures from presidents and world leaders to sports stars and celebrities. Want a picture taken with Brad and Angelina or a seat in the Oval Office presidential chair, then Madame Tussauds has a wax replica for you.

Most recently, the National Museum of Crime & Punishment opened on 7th Street, tucked into a busy downtown block. Here you can run through crime scenes like the “CSI” detectives on TV, take a gander at the FBI’s most-wanted list, get fingerprinted, see Bonnie and Clyde’s bullet-riddled car, and pretty much indulge in America’s insatiable appetite for the deviant, darker side of the law.

All of these museums share a common linkage in that they have little or nothing to do with actual art. Rather, they place a premium on interactive components that often rely extensively on computer technology over wall text and brochures to explore topics that have more to do with entertainment and sensationalism than history or art.

Still, there are museums and then there’s the Newseum, where the news is the news.

In April, the Newseum — located on Pennsylvania Avenue next to the Canadian Embassy — made its highly anticipated opening. After some initial delays, this 250,000-square-foot interactive showcase of all things media appears to be building a steady base of visitors.

Because of its subject matter and prime location, the Newseum looms large in the imaginations of tourists and Washingtonians alike. It is, after all, about the news, newsmakers, journalists and the history of the media — in a city full of newsmakers, journalists and media. Even the top floor, which offers a spectacular vista of the Capitol dome, connects to the quintessential news-making aspect of this city.

In sheer size and cost, the Newseum also towers over the rest of the new museums, which are more tightly focused and less ambitious. Here are just a few of the numbers: 250,000 square feet of museum space, 643,000 square feet of total land space, and 0 million in cost.

But beyond statistics, it’s a museum that lives in the moment — every day and in every way.

Although it’s chock full of history — five centuries’ worth to be precise — it brings that history into modern times and current events. More than one Newseum official has said that the museum is not meant to be a history of newspapers or journalism per se, but rather it aims to chart the course of the ever-changing media and offer a behind-the-scenes look at how and why the news is made. It’s also the kind of place, regardless if you’re a news junkie or not, that you can never get your fill of — even if you haven’t stepped inside.

In fact, one of the most electric parts of the museum is “Today’s Front Pages,” a series of 80 front pages from newspapers around the world, most of them located at street level along Pennsylvania Avenue. Just walking by and perusing those headlines, you’re immediately connected to humanity’s preoccupations, fears, interests, concerns, delights and daily developments in an oddly intimate way.

On a recent visit, Olympic basketball star and Chinese national icon Yao Ming was of course on all the front pages of the Asian papers, but he also graced the covers of European and American papers, with the singular exception of the New York Post and Wisconsin newspapers. Wisconsin was far more preoccupied with the fate of another athlete: the Green Bay Packers’ legendary but aging quarterback Brett Favre and his decision to come back from retirement.

Inside, the Newseum takes such immediacy to new heights, with electronic green ticker tapes that announce a constant string of current news. Current might actually be an understatement — up-to-the-second might be more exact. The museum boasts seven levels of hands-on wizardry, including with 14 exhibition galleries, 15 theaters, two television studios and no less than 100 miles of fiber-optic cable to hook all the technology together.

The Newseum — a vastly larger and more comprehensive version of the museum that was housed in Rosslyn, Va., for a number of years — explores everything from electronic news and photojournalism to how the media have covered major historical events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But here, nearly every aspect of the historic blends with the high-tech. For instance, there are interactive stations in which children and adults can try on the role of reporters, even being graded on their mistakes. There’s even a fast-paced master control room on full display that serves as the nerve center of the museum, orchestrating all the digital stations, videogames, tapes, movies, announcements and other electronics that bring the Newseum to roaring life.

Despite the impressive gadgetry, history of course plays a big role here, from the Bloomberg Internet, TV and Radio Gallery, which traces the rise of new forms of communication and news delivery, to the repetitively named News Corporation News History Gallery, which spans 500 years of news and features more than 30,000 historic newspapers.

There are also huge sections that make you stand in awe of history: the Berlin Wall exhibit on the bottom floor (which also houses a less-serious Wolfgang Puck restaurant), the First Amendment Gallery that places today’s news in historical and philosophical context, and the somber yet beautiful Journalists Memorial, a two-story glass structure with the names of nearly 2,000 journalists who died while reporting that reminds us the news business is still a dangerous one.

Outside the entrance is a 74-foot-high marble engraving of the First Amendment that faces Pennsylvania Avenue, announcing a seriousness of purpose that most museums — especially some of the new D.C. additions — don’t achieve these days.

This seriousness is especially important in today’s world of Paris Hiltons and Brangelinas — and here is where the Newseum succeeds. In the age of the Internet, when the coming demise of newspapers is constantly being proclaimed, when television coverage is expanding and shrinking all at once, and when you can carry the world in a cell phone, it reminds us that the news remains a precious thing no matter what medium or minute it is.

The Newseum 555 Pennsylvania Ave., NW For more information, please call (888) NEWSEUM (639-7386) or visit www.newseum.org.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.