Wednesday, April 9, 2008

No News Is Good News: A Museum Review

Newseum_4What you had was no news about the new Newseum in DC because I wrote an entire post that was somehow mysteriously empty when it posted.


I got a sneak peek at the Newseum on Saturday. It opens officially to the public this weekend.  Ted joined me for this visit, at least for the first part. After one or two floors, I was on my own.


We started with the "4-D" Theatre, at the suggestion of the information desk staff. Ted asked "Do we go back in time since the 4th dimension is time?" As the museum CEO greeted us (and by us I mean mostly the students from the Horatio Alger Association of which he's a board member), we anxiously waited for the answer, imagining ourselves going back to see ourselves as pre-pubescents in middle school eating cafeteria grilled cheese or something. Alas, we needn't have worried. I believe the 4th dimension they were referring to was the jolting of the seats and the blowing of air on us, to simulate that we were actually in the action. This action I speak of was loosely constructed, horribly acted recreations of events in news history, such as the investigative reporting of Nelly Bly. I couldn't tell if the actors were being ironic or if they were just bad.  On a side note, kids would probably be less critical and would like it.


The main course on the top floor is the sweeping view of Pennsylvania Avenue and the Mall. In my words when we entered the space "This would be GREAT for a cocktail party!" There is also a selection of national and international front pages displayed. I was disappointed to not find the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the esteemed publication I worked at the summer of 199--gulp--7.


The 5th floor has  a news history gallery with publications going back hundreds of years...don't worry, they've edited it down for you. Essentially, the pubs feature major historical events. Around the perimeter of the room are cases with themed displays such as civil rights (covering women, people of color, etc reporting the news), spoofs (popular exhibit with clips from SNL, Laugh In, and the Daily Show), and sensationalism (Elvis is Alive!). This level contains 3 theatres.


Herein lies the crux of my gripe about the Newseum. Caveat: I did not watch all of what was being shown. But, I felt like there was a LOT of present-day news being flashed at me. It just seemed like a waste of time to me.


The next level had the 9-11 gallery, featuring a TV tower from one of the Twin Towers, artifacts from and photographs taken by the one journalist to die covering the tragedy, and a documentary about those journalists who raced to the scene of the Twin Towers. I did watch that, and it was a tear jerker (they actually have tissues there). I found it poigniant, and it was popular, but I'm not sure if it's because the material is actually any more interesting or informative than what we've seen already on TV. It's emotional catharsis, and I'm not sure if that's a good mission for a museum. One cries at the Holocaust museum, for example, but it's not just that--it's educational and you walk away with a message. The message here was: boy, there was a tragedy, it was awful, and journalists were there covering it. Not much of a message.


There are also exhibits on the First Amendment, World News (prominently featuring the dangers of reporting abroad--including a bullet-battered truck), and a journalist's memorial. I admit, I glazed over a bit through these. I was tired--I spent a total of 4-5 hours in the museum. I did find out that only 3% of Americans can name the 5 liberties afforded by the 1st Amendment while 20% can name the 5 members of The Simpsons family. In case someone quizzes you, they're: Speech, Religion, Press, Assembly, & Petition.


I ate at the "Food Section," catered by Wolfgang Puck. Okay, it's a cafeteria. That's it. Don't expect fireworks and violins. I had a garden burger. It was a fine garden burger, but nothing to write home about.


After being fortified, I could better appreciate the next 2 things I saw: the Berlin Wall exhibit and the exhibit of Pulitzer Prize winning photos. The Wall exhibit has a piece of the Wall, a watchtower, and pieces exploring the importance of a free press and having access to information. The Pulitzer Prize exhibit told the stories behind the photos--some of which were very moving and stuck with me long after I left.


All in all, I liked my visit. There was a lot to see, and a lot to read, especially for someone like myself who insists on reading everything written on a museum wall. I slept well that night. If I had had to pay, I don't know how I would have felt. The $20 adult admission is a bit steep, especially for residents used to the free Smithsonians. I would have liked more of a running theme or discreet themes/stories to carry me through the significance of what was being presented--more interpretation. I'm sure it will find its own...I'm interested to see what the "professional" reviews say.


And, if you've visited, I'd like to hear what you think!


Here's what some others thought:


Slate (Articulates many of my own feelings, though in a slightly less reserved way)


USA Today (Essentially a cheerleading piece).


AP


Politico


Photo of the building by Maria Bryk/Newseum. 

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