The Newseum is an interactive museum in Washington DC dedicated to the history of journalism, and it is a fascinating look into the history of the press in Washington DC, the United States, and the world. It would be hard not to write off the Newseum as an expensive afterthought with all the Smithsonian museums in DC as a free alternative, but that would be a mistake; to miss the Newseum would be to miss one of the best museums in DC.
Before I entered the Newseum, I came across a huge marble tablet, inscribed with the 45 words that make up the first amendment – and guarantee freedom of the press. The Newseum is located along Pennsylvania avenue (the street that connects The White House and the Capitol building) so this tablet is strategically placed to remind the leaders of the nation of the first amendment as they’re making policy decisions.
After a short orientation video, I was directed into the Berlin Wall gallery. The Newseum has the largest section of the wall anywhere outside of Germany, and it is decorated with the graffiti art of the West Berliners. The history of the wall and harrowing tales of escape (and failed escape attempts) were covered, as well as the notable events that led to it’s collapse and the eventual reunification of Germany. The focus was on the role the media played in the crisis – while the wall could prevent East Germans from escaping into West Berlin, it could not prevent the free flow of Western radio and television broadcasts into the Eastern capital.
After visiting the wall, I was whisked up to the sixth floor in a large glass elevator where there is a spectacular view of the city from the terrace, overlooking the Capitol building. The museum tour then winds it’s way down six floors through the various temporary and permanent galleries.
A more lighthearted exhibit that I enjoyed was The President’s Photographer, chronicling the last fifty years of presidential photographers, the few men and women who have unprecedented access to go capture the moments the rest of the press (and the world, for that matter) do not get to see. Family moments, tense cabinet meetings, and moments on the campaign are some of the primary moments captured, but my favorite photos were the one’s that show the softer, human side of the presidents.
Another stunning photography gallery within the Newseum contains a comprehensive collection of Pulitzer Prize winning photographs in addition to interviews with the photographers who took them. Two Pulitzers are awarded each year for photography – one for breaking news and the other for feature. The Newseum has the photographs presented in chronological order, and it is fascinating to take a journey back in time through these photographs, reliving major moments such as the Columbine Massacre and the Oklahoma City Bombing. There were the iconic photos of VJ Day in Times Square and raising the flag at Iwo Jima, but perhaps the most powerful photo was an image of a vulture watching a starving child in southern Sudan. I had actually seen this photo numerous times before, but never with any context. The Newseum presented the tragic story behind the photo (the child struggling to get to a food center during a famine), but also shared the story of the photographer, who tragically took his own life shortly after receiving the award, haunted by what he had witnessed in Sudan.
Other notable galleries included the News History Gallery, where famous front pages overtime were displayed (The Titanic, D-Day, etc.) and the 9/11 Gallery, which includes the massive radio antenna that stood atop the north tower of the World Trade Center as well as artifacts and emotional stories from media members on the scene that day.
I finished my visit with the 4-D Movie which explained a few notable advancements in media history. The movie seemed to be a highlight for some, but it was a bit cheesy for me (and honestly, I have yet to see a 4D movie that wasn’t cheesy).
I have a tendency of rushing through museums – exhibits rarely grab my attention for more than 15 or 20 minutes and I can rarely spend a full day in any museum. However, the Newseum’s exhibits were so engaging, I had to pull myself away from some galleries to ensure I left enough time for the others. I spent almost five hours there, browsing through newspapers, watching old video clips, and reliving historic events.
I think one of the advantages the Newseum has is that it almost acts as a modern history museum. Aside from a few notable exceptions, most of the content in the Newseum is from the last 50 or 60 years. Also, the actual audio and video footage yields a much more tangible element to the gallery content that pictures and words alone can’t accomplish. It is much easier to connect to the content being presented having experienced elements of it first hand. While an ancient Egyptian sculpture or a Monet painting can be incredible in their own sense, they are much more difficult for me to connect with.
For this reason, I think the Newseum should be on any list of can’t-miss sites while in DC for anyone who is interested not just in journalism, but in the events that have shaped our lives.