For a city that houses what is possibly the finest collection of museums on earth, any newcomer that is neither free nor located on the National Mall may struggle to get its share of the tourist dollar.
But despite Washington DC’s Newseum being a mere fledgling compared to the grand old dames of the Mall (three years old in its present location) it is one of the most affecting, thought-provoking and worthwhile attractions in the capital.
An exploration and celebration of five centuries of news and journalistic endeavour, Newseum exists to provide the public with a better understanding of the media and its changing role in our lives, and offers a unique opportunity for visitors to experience how and why ‘news’ is made.
With an impressive position on Pennsylvania Avenue, Newseum occupies seven floors of interactive exhibition space wrapped around a huge central atrium in an imposing marble and glass-fronted building.
When the museum was relocated in 2008 from its Arlington, Virgina location across the Potomac, its goal was to create a space that was three times larger than the original, allowing for bold architectural statements like the opening words of the First Amendment carved into stone four storeys high on its front faÃ§ade, and a panoramic terrace with views from the Capitol to the Washington Monument.
The recommended way to experience Newseum is to start in the basement (concourse level) then take the glass elevator to the top floor and work your way down. This means that the first major exhibit you’ll come across is the Berlin Wall Gallery, housing the largest section of the wall to be found outside Germany. Eight 12 ft high concrete sections are on display, each weighing about three tonnes, along with a three storey Stasi guard tower. Looped TV footage of jubilant East and West Germans hacking away at the despised concrete barrier can’t fail to raise hairs on the backs of the necks of those old enough to remember watching it live back in November 1989.
The outstanding Covering Katrina gallery on Level 6 is a temporary exhibit on display until the 18th September 2011 – a year-long commemoration of the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the most destructive hurricane in recorded US history.
The exhibition is a stark but movingly curated journey through five days of global front pages showing how the media reported the tragedy as it unfolded, along with an evocative mix of salvaged artefacts – a plywood rescue sign from a drowning house, a huge anti-looting warning sign from the owners of a New Orleans rug shop, a kayak used by a photojournalist to navigate the streets.
But tucked away in a corner is one of the most heartstopping items on display: a copy of the New Orleans’ National Weather Service pre-storm warning alert.
The missive dispassionately detailed what residents could expect to experience if they did not leave the city immediately as part of the mandatory evacuation – blown out windows, power cuts lasting weeks, water shortages – and, more chillingly, what they might find on their return.
It makes for a terrifying yet enlightening read and really brings home the total devastation endured by so many, so click on the photo to enlarge.
Through a lens
The role of photography – photojournalism, reportage, narrative, official portraiture – is explored in great depth at Newseum, most effectively in the sombre 9/11 Gallery (Level 4), the absolutely remarkable Pulitzer Prize Photographs display (Level 1) and the world’s longest running photojournalism competition, the Nikon-sponsored Pictures of the Year, showcasing the events that shaped 2010 (Concourse).
More light-hearted but equally compelling (and justifiably popular) is the First Dogs: American Presidents and Their Pets exhibition, which showcases some of the pampered pooches who’ve lived at the nation’s most famous address, revealing the strong and sometimes bizarre bonds that existed between master and hound. Highlights include Calvin Coolidge’s collie Prudence posing on the lawn in her Easter bonnet, and Lyndon B. Johnson lifting his beagles, Him and Her, by the ears, causing a not-insignificant outcry.
Ethics and Freedom
One of the Newseum’s most fascinating exhibits is the World Map of Press Freedom, updated every year using information from Freedom House, an independent watchdog supporting the expansion of freedom around the world. Interactive screens explain the reasoning behind each country’s status and as the video below makes clear, it’s a powerful reminder of how few countries in the world enjoy a free press.
The Bancroft Family Ethics Center is another intriguing gallery where interactive kiosks challenge you to decide on key questions of ethics and editorial dilemmas like, is it ok to manipulate a photograph for dramatic effect? Should you use anonymous sources? Kids in particular will enjoy challenging each other to the fast-paced media ethics game.
And speaking of kids, there are more than enough fun and exciting activities on offer to keep them occupied for hours, including a 4-D Time Travel Adventure on one of the big screens. But by far the most popular is the opportunity to be a TV reporter, where they’ll get to choose an iconic Washington backdrop and read off an autocue direct to camera. Afterwards they can purchase a download of their video and photo for posterity, or simply cherish the memory.
The Newseum is located at 555 Pennsylvania Avenue on the corner of 6th Street and is open from 9am to 5pm every day, except Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Visit newseum.org for more details or call 888-639-7386. Entry is $21.95 for adults and $12.95 for 7-18s (plus tax). Those under 6 go free. Tickets are valid for two consecutive days.
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