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D.C.’s New Newseum: The Inside Scoop

Newseum gives kids and adults a newsworthy tour through the history of journalism.

 

Here’s a deal every traveler to the nation’s capital absolutely should consider: For just $20, you can visit the National Gallery of Art, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the many magnificent museums of the Smithsonian Institution and the brand-spanking-new Newseum.

How do you get in on such a bargain?

It’s simple: Walk into the Newseum and pay 20 bucks.

Unlike the National Gallery across the street and the Smithsonian and Holocaust museums nearby, the Newseum, which opened on April 11, charges admission (which drops to $18 for people 65 and over, $13 for kids ages 7 through 12, and nothing for those 6 and under). While the cost will give some people pause when plotting their Washington, D.C., must-sees, the museum’s sponsor Freedom Forum, the nonpartisan foundation dedicated to “free speech, free press and free spirit for all people,” is betting that every day hundreds of individuals, families and groups will find the almost-deafening buzz surrounding the $450 million Newseum to be irresistible.

Why the excitement? In Washington political parlance, it’s the exhibits, stupid. Seven levels of them offer a sensory feast—a walk through history, reminders of the importance and fragility of the First Amendment, sobering displays documenting the risks journalists take to cover the news, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs augmented by first-person accounts of the men and women behind the lens, and interactive exhibits bound to please the younger set.

Part of the buzz also stems from the Newseum’s conspicuous presence on Pennsylvania Avenue, with jaw-dropping views of the U.S. Capitol and other familiar Washington landmarks—especially from an open-air terrace on the sixth level.

Headlines of History

During its grand opening weekend, the Newseum drew rave reviews.

Mike and Kate Getka of Chicago scheduled a long-planned visit to Washington with their 8-year-old son, Lane, to coincide with the opening of what is billed as “The World’s Most Interactive Museum.” Nearly two hours into a self-guided tour, they said their expectations had been exceeded.

Lane was naturally drawn to some of the kid-friendly interactive exhibits, but he added, “I also like a lot of the old-fashioned stuff and things that happened a while ago.”

The Getkas visited the 9/11 Gallery, the centerpiece of which is a mangled communications tower that once topped the World Trade Center. Also on display are the damaged camera equipment, note pad and press pass of—and final photos taken by—freelancer Bill Biggart, one of the nearly 3,000 casualties of Sept. 11, 2001.

Mike and Kate decided to wait until their son is older before viewing “9/11: Running to Danger,” one the Newseum’s numerous documentaries. The film’s graphic images, some never previously seen publicly, trigger emotional responses, and a dispenser of tissues is strategically positioned at the entrance to the intimate theater.

Becky Lubbers and her 10-year-old daughter, Kate, of Ft. Gratiot, Mich., were all smiles as they wrapped up a three-hour stay, but Becky confessed to having choked up when she watched the 9/11 film while Kate waited outside. “She came out crying,” Kate said. “And I’m not really a crier,” her mother interjected.

Becky, a lawyer and political science instructor at a community college, said the News History Gallery was riveting for her and for Kate, who “saw headlines about things she has learned in school, such as Pearl Harbor and Martin Luther King [Jr.]” Buttressing the headlines are display cases laden with artifacts, ranging from the implements reporter Mark Kellogg carried with him to his death at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876, to the tampered door from the Watergate burglary.

Interactive Experiences, 4-D Adventures

“I also liked the newscasting,” Kate said of her stint in the “Be a TV Reporter” area of the Interactive Newsroom. Was she nervous? “I felt really excited and happy.”

Becky said she will share the newscast with relatives and friends once she downloads it. Note: This optional experience involves the Newseum’s only surcharge, $8.

Overall, she pronounced the Newseum as “very, very well done. It’s laid out well and easy to follow.”

Suzanne Fenzel and her daughters, Anna, 10, and Erin, 7, walked from their Capitol Hill home to the Newseum and spent several hours seeing a good portion of it.

Suzanne, who once served in the U.S. military in Germany, found the Berlin Wall Gallery “very moving.” It explains how broadcasts from free West Berlin into communist East Berlin helped bring down the barrier that divided the city from August 1961 until November 1989. The exhibit features eight sections of the wall—the most outside of Germany—and a three-story-tall East German guard tower that once stood near the Checkpoint Charlie border crossing.

Elsewhere in the Interactive Newsroom, touch-screen stations simulate the experience of covering a story as a reporter or photographer. An Ethics Center presents the kinds of difficult choices journalists face on the job.

Suzanne and her daughters said they also enjoyed the “4-D Time Travel Adventure” that spotlights several instances of powerful news reporting. However, of the Second World War segment in which an actor portraying Edward R. Murrow broadcasts from a London rooftop as German bombs fall—and the theater seats shake from the percussion—Anna said, “It was scary.”

Erin, meanwhile, said she didn’t like an especially “creepy part” of another segment showing how 19th century reporter Nellie Bly infiltrated an insane asylum. In that scene, as a rat races across the screen, audience members feel a gust of air hit their ankles.

David Foster, 11, of Linthicum, Md., said he enjoyed the film’s three-dimensional visual effects, such as a sword that comes toward the audience during the segment on how Isaiah Thomas covered the Battle of Lexington in 1775. Seeing the Revolutionary War engagement re-enacted was timely because “I learned about that in school a few months ago.”

Digital news is not overlooked in the technologically advanced Newseum, nor is journalism’s all-too-frequent tendency to lapse into sensationalism, unfairness—or worse. The Newseum also demonstrates a sense of humor, with video clips from the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, a large Bart Simpson writing “The First Amendment Does Not Cover Burping” on the blackboard and printed goofs of hilarious proportions adorning the walls of the rest rooms, such as the headline, “Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge.”

One final point: Wear comfortable shoes. The exhibit space covers 250,000 square feet—more than triple the amount of an earlier Newseum that the Freedom Forum operated on the Virginia side of the Potomac River between 1997-2002. The suggested path through the 14 major galleries is 1.5 miles long.

Maurice Fliess worked for the Freedom Forum and Newseum from 1992 through 2001 and now is a member of the Newseum Advisory Committee.


Destinations: Washington

Themes: Art and Museums, Family Travel

Activities: Museums


User Comments

wow! What a great museum! I received my BA in Communications, and I would just love to see all the great exhibits.

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