{USA} A Newsworthy Museum

May 1, 2013


Every since my first visit to Washington, D.C., I’ve wanted to visit the Newseum. We associate news with something that’s happening right now, something that’s new. If it’s no longer current, we talk of it as old news. But ‘old news’ also documents our history, so I was fascinated by the idea of a museum all about ‘The News’.


The museum bills itself as a place where “five centuries of news history meets up-to-the-second technology” (visitor brochure). You start your visit in the basement concourse, where we skipped the orientation film and instead jumped right in to our first bit of news history: the Berlin Wall! As well as the eight original sections of the Wall itself, there is also an old East German guard tower you can go inside. I have to admit, it was slightly surreal seeing it outwith the context that surrounds us every day here in Berlin, especially since it’s included in the museum’s ‘must see’ highlights. I guess I’ve never really thought about the significance of it in world history as perceived by other countries.We also stopped off in the temporary exhibit about the history of the FBI, from chasing down 1930s gangsters to its present day war on terrorism.


We then continued out visit by taking the great glass elevator to the Level 6 and working our way down. On Level 6 itself, you have an amazing view of the US Capitol from the Pennsylvania Avenue Terrace, and take a look at the most current news on the Front Pages Gallery. The museum has an agreement with over 800 newspapers worldwide to display their front pages each day on the museum’s website. A selection of these are enlarged and printed out for display in the gallery as well as in a display case outside the museum, including one from each US state and Washington, D.C., as well as from a variety of international newspapers.



On Level 5, it was time to take trip from the present day back in history, in the News History Gallery. The centre piece of the gallery is a timeline showcasing the museum’s collection of historic newspapers, starting with 16th Century war reporting from Italy right up to the death of Osama Bin Laden in 2011. Significant newspaper headlines include Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the break out of World War II in 1939, Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, the moon landing in 1696, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (there it is again), and the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.  I thought an illustrated broadside from 1605 reporting on the Guy Fawkes gunpowder plot in England was particularly awesome. And those are just a small selection! The timeline also includes several touch screens with quizzes about front page news and journalists of note, and the display cases opposite the timeline, featuring artefacts and memorabilia relating to news history, address topics such as the establishment of the press, the development of news technology – from carrier pigeons and typewriters to more modern methods, war reporting or civil rights.


There are also five small theatres that explore some topics in greater depth through a variety of films, such as ‘The Press and the Civil Rights Movement’, ‘The History of Newsreels’ or ‘Hollywood: Fact of Fiction’, while The Big Picture shows a medley of clips presenting “historic news broadcasts, original documentaries and breaking news on a 100ft long video wall”. And a small exhibit on Level 5, Great Books, introduces some important works of political thought and action such as the first pamphlet printing of the US Constitution from 1787, which was also pretty awesome to see up close.


The New Media Gallery on Level 4 is heaps of fun. First you can ‘check yourself in’ and see your photo appear on one of the big screens. Then there’s a bunch of other interactives to participate in, such as creating your own newspaper front page and sending that to a big screen, or taking a quiz show challenge in ‘Dunk the Anchor’, where your unfortunate virtual show host gets dunked ever time you get a question right.


Also on Level 4 is a gallery dedicated to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, which is quite hard going. Alongside a wall of over 100 newspaper front pages from the day after, covering the event, there’s a piece of antenna mast from one of the gallen towers, a piece of the damaged Pentagon building and a piece of fuselage from the plane that went down in Pennsylvania, luckily never reaching its intended target but killing all people on board. A touch screen comments book projects entries on one of the other walls, and a short film called “Running Toward Danger” featuring first person accounts from many involved in the tragedy left none of us visitors unmoved.


Our final stop on Level 4 was in the First Amendement Gallery, where we learned all about the five freedoms. I have to admit I could only name two – freedom of speech and freedom of religion. I didn’t realise freedom of press was something separate to speech, I always got them confused in the past. And I was definitely not alone in not being able to name freedom of assembly and petition, as shown in a video where members of the public in the US had been quizzed on the five freedoms. It was also interesting to see comparisons between different countries. Germany, for example, generally has freedom of speech but with some exceptions, such as laws against denial of the Holocaust, or against the incitement of hate which ranks higher than the the right to freely expressing your opinons.


On Level 3 we visited the World News gallery, which focuses on the censorship issues and dangerous conditions journalists throughout the world face in their work, from being harassed or imprisoned, to be being attacked or even killed. One of the centre pieces of the gallery is a journalist’s car riddled with bullet holes. Right next to the gallery is a memorial to all the journalists that have died in their line of work. Level 3 also has a gallery showing how the speed of news increased in line with technology improving, from radio through TV through to the internet. Up to date topics include blogging, user generated content and the ‘digital revolution’. A set of touch screens allows visitors to look through news reels including e.g. war footage from 1898, some of which was apparently staged to make it look more ‘authentic’, Queen Victoria’s funeral, or the 2008 US presidential election.


Our interactive experience continued on Level 2 in the Ethics Center, where the touch screen kiosks pose such difficult dilemmas for you to decide over such as whether to alter a photograph to make it more dramatic for a news story, or whether, if you witnessed something terrible happening you would step in to help or get your story. You could also see how other people have voted, which was then compared to how journalists who were asked had voted, and it was interesting to see where the answers from the journalists and the general public differed. The Interactive Newsroom, where you get the chance to be a reporter, was sadly closed for maintenance, but there was a selection of other news related gamed that you could play such as having to cover a rescue story and getting the perfect photograph to go with it, or a ‘Newsmania’ trivia game, which you can also play online. And a really cute feature was the gallery dedicated to First Dogs – you’d be surprised how many dogs have lived in the White House*! Though there has also been a fascinating array of other presidential pets, ranging from cats and birds, horses and donkeys, to goats and snakes, bear cubs and raccoons, and even a pygmy hippo. As a nice little aside, they had turned an opportunity to make a donation into a chance to vote for your favourite First Dog.


And with that we had made our way all the way back down to Level 1 and the great entrance hall. Here you can watch the film “I-Witness: A 4-D Time Travel Adventure”, which is basically a 3D film with moving chairs that provide the 4th dimension special effects to make you feel like your right among the stories happening in history, such as your seat swaying like you were in a boat or suddenly jerking violently when there’s an explosion. The eyes witness reports include the story of Nelly Bly who faked insanity to go undercover in a 19th century asylum and expose its horrendous conditions, and journalist Edward R. Murrow delivering a live radio report from a London roof top in the middle of a World War II air raid. Also on Level 1 is the unmissable Pulitzer Prize Gallery, showing the most comprehensive collection of prize winning photographs ever displayed together, many of which are accompanied by short interviews. Whilst some of the photographs do capture moments of joy, many of them show scenes of tragedy or war and its almost impossible not to get emotional, e.g. at the woman falling from a burning building, captured mid air, who then died. In the accompanying interview, the journalists says that he turned away at last moment as he did not want to see her hit the ground. One nice thing that happened though, was the family who arrived in the exhibition, where the kids where asking their father where his photograph was. They were really excited to see it, and obviously proud of their dad. And then I caught the father taking a picture of himself in the gallery. It was a really sweet moment to witness.


A visit to the Newseum doesn’t come cheap, especially when you’re used to the free Smithsonian museums around town. It’s over $20 for a regular ticket, with concessions for seniors and youths. But children under 7 go free, and if you buy your ticket online in advance you get a discount. And travellers without a printer to hand need not worry, because all you need it a note of your booking number and some photo ID to retrieve your tickets at the museum. Tickets are valid two consecutive days in a row, so if you have the time to spare you can really get your money’s worth, and the online tickets weren’t tied to a specific day, just valid any time until the end of the year, so we bought them early on and then waited for the right day to go. As I mentioned in Monday’s post about Washington, D.C. museums with kids, this wasn’t perhaps the most ideal museum to visit with a two year old, even though we made it work for us, but older kids would definitely have a blast here, and the visitors guide both warns parents of exhibits that may be unsuitable for children, as well as pointing out the most family friendly parts. All in all, our visit to the Newseum was money well spent, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone else.

Just to reassure you, First Dogs is a photography gallery, there were no taxidermy exhibits of former pets on display!

, ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply