Newseum? Is that nimble wordplay or a typo? It’s a corny name, admittedly. The Newseum is an engaging, immersive museum that celebrates freedom of expression, the free press and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and traces the evolution of journalism and the news media. It boasts 15 galleries and 15 theatres over seven floors, covering everything the industry-disruptive nature of the internet and the phenomenon of fake news.
Where can I find it? The 250,000-sqft Newseum is housed in a purpose-built, glass-fronted chunk of prime Washington real estate on Pennsylvania Avenue, roughly halfway between the United States Capitol building and the White House, making it a defiant neighbour to US President Donald Trump, who has famously called the media “the true enemy of the people”.
Oh, great! So with the ongoing US government shutdown, it’s likely closed. Nope. While the partial government shutdown – which began on December 22, largely because of disagreements over funding for Trump’s promised Mexico-border wall – has seen many of the US capital’s sights closed to the public, with even the must-visit Smithsonian museums nearby shutting their doors on January 2 (Sad!), the Newseum, which is funded by the non-profit private foundation the Freedom Forum, has stayed open.
So what’s the big scoop? The Newseum features an array of permanent and temporary multimedia rooms and displays. Among the former is the 9/11 Gallery, which examines the predominant global news event of 2001, with first-hand accounts from journalists who covered the attacks on New York’s World Trade Center, and the mangled broadcast antenna that once stood atop the building.
The Berlin Wall Gallery is dominated by eight, 3.5-metre-tall sections of, you guessed it, the original concrete barrier, the largest such display outside Germany, as well as an East German guard tower. Recent temporary exhibitions have included “The Marines and Tet: The Battle That Changed the Vietnam War” and “1968: Civil Rights at 50”.
The Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery showcases every winning shot since 1942, when the honour was first awarded, while a large, colour-coded wall map vividly depicts levels of press freedom around the world. With Russia, China and large swathes of Africa deeply in the red, it paints a sorry picture.
One of the most sobering displays is the Journalists Memorial, a two-storey glass installation that bears the names of more than 2,300 reporters, photographers and broadcasters who have died in the line of duty.
Any gripes? While it is only right to salute high-minded correspondents braving war zones, telling truth to power and risking their lives, there is something a tad self-congratulatory about the Newseum. And it could be accused of selling a glamorised picture of modern journalism. Where are the harried, desk-bound hacks reduced to regurgitating press releases and churning out clickbait to meet the merciless demands of the online news cycle?
And the Newseum’s focus is emphatically on American media. (But then, it is in the US capital, with sponsors that include Time Warner, Comcast, NBC and Bloomberg, among others.)
I must say, this does not sound like fun for all the family. It’s not all doom and gloom, honest. Youngsters wishing to step in front of the camera and try their hand at broadcasting should check out the NBC News Interactive Newsroom, and the Be a TV Reporter station allows precocious talking heads of tomorrow to share their exclusives in front of a video backdrop. There is even a quirky display explaining the history of the “funny pages” through comic faves such as Calvin and Hobbes, Peanuts and Pogo.
There’s clearly a lot to digest, can I grab a bite while visiting? You bet. The Food Section is a 152-seat, self-service food court offering hot entrées, sandwiches, salads, desserts and snacks, from Austrian-born celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck’s catering team.
For lunch or dinner (and brunch on Saturdays) in a swankier setting, award-winning restaurant The Source by Wolfgang Puck is also in the Newseum building, with a traditional Japanese Izakaya menu in its ground-floor bar and lounge, and contemporary spins on Asian favourites (Hong Kong-style ora king salmon; wok-fired Maine lobster; soy-lacquered lamb chops) in the upstairs dining room. Flash your Newseum admission ticket to enjoy a 15 per cent discount on food at The Source.
And how much to enter the Newseum? A visit does not come cheap (especially when compared to the Smithsonian museums, which – when open – are free). Adults (aged 19 to 64) pay US$24.95, seniors (65 and up) US$19.95, children and youths aged seven to 18 must shell out US$14.95, while those under six go free. Journalists are among those who qualify for discounts.
And what about picking up a souvenir? The Newseum Store stocks the books, fridge magnets, coffee mugs, baseball caps and waggish knick-knacks one has come to expect from a modern museum gift shop. Visiting freelance scribes will smile sardonically at the long-sleeve T-shirt adorned with the words “Will Write For Food” (US$24.99). As making a crust is increasingly tricky in 21st-century journalism, the fact that the shirt is only available in size XL seems gratuitously cruel.