Celebrating the News  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2006

Celebrating the News   

A new and expanded Newseum, set to open next year in a prime D.C. location, will honor the First Amendment and whats right about journalism.

By Jessica Meyers
Meyers is an AJR editorial assistant.     


At a time when journalists are reeling from scathing rebukes and public skepticism about their profession, the gleaming Newseum is poised to become a welcome reminder of all that's good about the business.

The seven-story, glass-enclosed museum in downtown Washington is scheduled to open in fall 2007. Built by the Freedom Forum, the $435 million project will have three times more space than its predecessor across the Potomac River in Virginia. In addition to the 250,000 square feet of gallery space, the building will house 135 rental apartments (as required by the District of Columbia) and Wolfgang Puck's first restaurant in Washington.

The Newseum's prime location on Pennsylvania Avenue puts it several blocks from some of the city's most popular tourist spots: the Smithsonian museums, the National Mall and the White House. Organizers say just over 2.25 million people visited the old museum in Rosslyn, Virginia, during its five years there, and hope the new location will draw many of the 19 million people who visit Washington's major sites each year.

Charles Overby, chairman and CEO of the Freedom Forum and the Newseum, says the museum could reshape how the public views the press. "We think this is the most ambitious effort to educate people about the free press and First Amendment," he says. "It will change the way people look at the First Amendment. It is bigger than anything [that has] ever been tried."

A little more than two years after breaking ground, the basic structure is in place. Standing atop 111-foot-long steel beams transported from Quebec City, Newseum Vice President and Deputy Director Max Page says nothing about the construction has been simple. "You typically build the first, then the second, floor. That was far too economical and easy [for us]," he says. "This is absolutely unique. We hung the fifth floor, then the fourth. We are building a building in reverse."

Page can blame the upside-down construction on Polshek Partnership Architects and exhibit designer Ralph Appelbaum, a renowned team that collaborated on the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock. For the Newseum, they wanted to create a building that symbolized a free press and emphasized a convergence of media forms.

The building's shape resembles a newspaper with three sections, each slightly taller than the one before it. Just as a reader discovers more by turning the pages, each layer of the museum will reveal another aspect of journalism. The entire structure will be enclosed in glass to represent the transparency of the press.

At the front entrance, a 74-foot panel inscribed with the First Amendment will enshrine the Freedom Forum's mission to preserve free speech. Housed within but viewable from outside the museum, a giant media screen will broadcast breaking news as well as coverage of historic news events. Whether watching footage of the 1986 Challenger spacecraft disaster on a 90-foot screen or tracing the history of the Internet in one of numerous touch-screen kiosks, visitors will be able to participate in what Newseum organizers describe as one of the most interactive museums in the world.

After a brief introductory film on the concourse level, the building's design encourages visitors to start their trip at the top. They will board the world's largest hydraulic passenger elevators and shoot up past CONUS 1, the world's first satellite newsgathering vehicle, to a terrace that overlooks the U.S. Capitol and the Supreme Court. Visitors will then proceed through the exhibits inside a 90-foot-tall atrium via a series of ramps and stairs. The floors of the galleries hang from giant beams an atypical construction used to create a stable interior while maintaining the atrium's openness.

From a hands-on ethics game to a gripping documentary on media coverage of 9/11, the exhibits will use content, technology and interactivity to illuminate the newsgathering process. They also will analyze how the media have covered major historical events and personalize First Amendment issues. Visitors will be able to scan front-page headlines dating back to the 1500s, glance at a news zipper of breaking stories or touch an image of a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo on four of the museum's 140 monitors to activate an interview with the photographer.

In the largest of 15 theaters, spectators will feel the simulated faint brush of "rats" against their legs as they watch Nellie Bly go undercover to report on the wretched state of the country's mental institutions in 1887. They'll experience the bone-rattling shake of bombs with Edward R. Murrow while he reports from London in World War II. In the Newseum's two planned broadcast studios, the staff wants to host a variety of news programs such as public radio's "The Diane Rehm Show" and CNN's "Reliable Sources"; spectators will be able to watch live feeds of these shows.

News will be documented in a more traditional manner in the News History Gallery. The museum's largest exhibit traces 500 years of news through highlights of the Newseum's collection of more than 40,000 newspapers. From the sinking of the Spanish Armada to the Enron trial, people will see the first draft of history.

Two galleries will delve into specific events. The 9/11 Gallery will examine coverage of that tragedy and display a mangled, 31-foot piece of the antenna that topped the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The Berlin Wall Gallery will present panels of the infamous wall. Bare on the Eastern side, graffiti-covered on the Western side, the panels illustrate the stark contrast between the freedoms granted West Germans and the censorship imposed on their East German neighbors.

The importance of free speech will pervade the exhibit halls, but nowhere so dramatically as the First Amendment and World News galleries. Through a detailed map, visitors will be able to learn about how much freedom the press has in every country. Items such as a bullet-riddled truck Time magazine reporters used in Bosnia will reinforce the dangers international correspondents confront.

The Journalists Memorial, a soaring two-story glass structure with more than 1,600 names inscribed, will honor those killed in the line of duty. Like the Newseum itself, it will bear witness to the risks that journalists have taken to deliver the news.

Newseum President Peter S. Prichard believes the memorial and the museum's other exhibits will resonate with journalists and non-journalists alike. "I think one reason the Newseum is attractive to visitors is that it contains great stories, stories of shared experiences people remember, like where they were when Kennedy was shot or when Diana died," he explains. "My son always used to say, 'It's a journalism museum, and that's fine. But Dad, it's also really a history museum too. That's why people like it.'"

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