With newspapers closing every other week, it seems, and accusations of “fake news” and biased reporting thrown about by those who don’t like what they’re reading, a visit to the Newseum takes on not just added poignancy, but may raise feelings of alarm. That’s because at the core of this entertaining yet erudite enterprise there’s an important message: that journalism is an integral part not just of democracy, but of civilization itself. (Lest there be any doubt, The Washington Post felt compelled in 2017 to add the motto “Democracy Dies in Darkness” to run beneath the name of the newspaper on its front page.) The museum makes its case in a much less heavy-handed way than I just have, while at the same time acknowledging the myriad of ways that journalists can screw up! In a town of absorbing museums, this one more than holds its own.
The seven-level museum has 15 galleries highlighting subjects from ethics in journalism to Pulitzer Prize photographs, 15 theaters, 130 interactive game stations, and two broadcast studios, including one that has the real-life Capitol as its backdrop. When you enter, staff usually directs you to the lower level to watch orientation films. I’d say that you can skip the 4-minute introductory film and head instead to the theater showing the 8-minute What’s News?, a topical film that explores the boundaries of journalism. Also on this level is the Berlin Wall exhibit, which includes eight 12-foot-high concrete sections of the original wall and an East German guard tower. Future crime reporters might want to tour the FBI exhibit’s display of artifacts related to big-name cases from the past 100 years.
From here, take the glass elevator to the sixth floor and stroll the outdoor terrace to admire the view of Pennsylvania Avenue and the Capitol (great photo op). If you have time, peruse the timeline that’s posted along the length of this promenade, tracing the history of events that took place up and down the avenue.
Now walk down the stairs to level five to explore the Putnam Great Books Gallery, whose interactive touch screens allow you to view pages of the Magna Carta, the Federalist Papers, and other cornerstone works on freedom. The History Gallery serves up 5 centuries of journalism and more than 300 historic front pages. The 100-foot-wide video wall plays original programming and breaking news throughout the day.
Down another flight to the fourth floor finds you in the Newseum’s newest and most popular exhibit at the moment, the HP New Media Gallery, whose interactive exhibits allow you to create your own news homepage and play Dunk the Anchorman. (Your correct answers to a set of increasingly difficult questions about journalism and social media result in the dunking of the virtual anchorman.) Elsewhere on this floor, the First Amendment Gallery tells the stories of real people whose experiences illustrate the value of our five First Amendment freedoms. The 9/11 Gallery highlights the challenges faced by journalists reporting on 9/11 in a seriously moving fashion.
The third floor’s Journalists Memorial honors the more than 2,246 journalists who have died in the course of reporting their stories since 1837. Also on this floor are two state-of-the-art broadcast studios frequently in use by media organizations.
Pull up to one of 48 interactive kiosks in the second floor’s NBC News Interactive Newsroom and test your prowess as a photojournalist, reporter, or editor. Sit in as a news anchor and read from a teleprompter, then play back the tape to see how well you did.
The gallery of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs on the first floor includes a documentary film and interactive kiosks featuring interviews with some of the photographers.
Finish up on the concourse level with a viewing of I-Witness, whose 4-D film features put you in the picture with legendary journalists Isaiah Thomas (radical printer, not basketball legend), Nellie Bly, and Edward R. Murrow.
If it’s before 3pm, you might want to visit the food court, which has a very kid-friendly (and adult-friendly: wine and beer are on offer) menu designed by Wolfgang Puck. The museum also has several gift shops.
- Elise Hartman Ford