Time magazine’s armoured truck from the Balkans, pockmarked with bullet holes, has been hoisted into place. The laptop used by Daniel Pearl, The Wall Street Journal reporter murdered in Pakistan in 2002, has arrived. So has the vest that Bob Woodruff of ABC News was wearing last year when he was wounded by a roadside bomb in Iraq.
These stark reminders of the hazards of news gathering will be displayed at the new Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington D.C., in the US, scheduled to open on 15 October. Cranes still hover over its steel-and-glass structure, but workers have now installed the facade’s showstopper—a 50-tonne, 74-ft-high marble engraved with the First Amendment—and are preparing the exhibitions.
Slowly, the Newseum—a bigger, more dramatic, higher-tech reinvention of the former Newseum in Arlington, Virginia—is taking shape. More than six years in the making and costing $435 million (Rs1,784 crore), it may be one of the world’s most expensive museums now under construction. It is certainly among the most prominent, perched on the last buildable site on the presidential inaugural parade route between the Capitol and the White House.
And it is one of the most ambitious, both in design and aspiration. Polshek Partnership Architects designed the museum, and Ralph Appelbaum Associates created its exhibits (their earlier collaborations include the Clinton Library in Little Rock, Arkansas, and the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.)
The building’s transparent exterior is meant to convey the idea of a free press and an open society. A mammoth rectangle frames the facade, suggesting a television or computer screen that provides what the museum calls a “window on the world”. Visitors enter through a Great Hall of News, where they can see breaking stories on a giant digital “zipper” before setting out on a 1.5-mile (2.4km) path of displays and interactive kiosks. The building, which has seven floors, also contains 135 upscale apartments, Newseum shops and Wolfgang Puck’s three-storey restaurant, appropriately called the Source.
The Appelbaum firm, specializing in interpretive exhibits, is known for infusing ordinary objects with meaning. Its past projects include the Holocaust Museum in Houston and the original Newseum.
The Newseum will have 600 artefacts on display, one-tenth of its collection. There’s a pencil, but it was used by Mark H. Kellogg, a reporter killed at Little Bighorn with George Armstrong Custer in 1876, and since blogging is best done in pyjamas, Newseum also showcases the turquoise slippers worn by Ana Marie Cox when she wrote as Wonkette, the sassy Washington blogger (she now writes for Time.com.)
The museum has already obtained the cellphone that a Virginia Tech student used last month to capture a video of the campus massacre. It is in the process of trying to obtain the video itself.
“We trace the way news is perceived and digested and remembered,” Appelbaum said. “All the elements here are devoted to revealing this extraordinary discipline of journalism that has shaped how we see history.”
The Newseum’s goal is to present the “first rough draft of history” in all its glory and some of its shame, impressing upon visitors the importance of the First Amendment’s protections of a free press. In the glory department are Edward R. Murrow’s rooftop broadcasts from London during the blitz; he is among the heroes of a short movie to be shown in the Newseum’s 4D theatre, where the seats will literally shake as German planes roar overhead.
The shame is evident in exhibits examining, among other things, Jayson Blair’s manufactured articles in The New York Times and Jack Kelley’s fabrications in USA Today. Videos address the use of anonymous sources and how bias can find its way into news accounts.
One of the museum’s major challenges will be to attract visitors at a time when surveys show that public respect for the news media has been ebbing. Charles L. Overby, chief executive of the Freedom Forum, the non-profit organization that underwrites the Newseum, discussed the problem in an interview in his temporary office adjacent to the construction site.
“Our annual survey shows that 40% of the American public believes the press has too much freedom,” he said, adding that the museum’s job is to educate—in an engaging way.
The Newseum, he emphasized, is not meant to be a monument to the press, but to its freedom.
“We try to show that the press has been hostile, arrogant and irresponsible since the beginning of the republic, and that this is not a new phenomenon that comes from being anti-Bush or anti-Clinton,” Overby said. “It’s the nature of a free press. And when the public sees the making of this sausage, they begin to say, ‘Well, that’s democracy’.”
Peter S. Prichard, president of the Newseum and a former editor-in-chief of USA Today, said the original Newseum, which opened in 1997, drew 2.2 million visitors over its five years. “It was like a pilot project,” he said. “We got to see what worked and what didn’t, and we saved all the comment cards.”
Like the original Newseum, the new one will be filled with interactive bells and whistles. Visitors will be able to tape themselves doing stand-up broadcasts as if they were reporting from the White House. They can ham it up in a weather forecast. Various spaces in the new building offer that classic Washington photo op, a drop-dead view of the Capitol. The Newseum also has 15 theatres and two state-of-the-art broadcast studios for public-affairs events.
One of the galleries will be devoted to journalistic ethics. It allows visitors to race one another to answer some basic yes-or-no questions on deadline. You are reporting on shoplifting and learn that your neighbour has been arrested, a potential conflict; should you tell your editor? (Yes, according to a Newseum panel of journalism experts.)
But there is also a chance to consider more complex issues, based on real events. Should a photographer in Sudan have taken a picture of a starving child as a vulture lurked nearby, or tried to save the child? At a click, visitors can get more information about the photograph, which appeared in The New York Times and won a Pulitzer Prize, read the views of journalists and vote on what they would have done (they can also see how journalists voted on the issue.)
The original Newseum was off the beaten path and had no room to expand. After searching for a more tourist-friendly location, the Freedom Forum made an unsolicited offer of $75 million (Rs307.5 crore) to the district of Columbia for this site. As a sweetener, it offered an extra $25 million for low-income housing.
The Freedom Forum closed the deal in December 2000 and broke ground three years later. So far, it has received pledges for $79 million in donations, including $15 million from the Annenberg Foundation; $10 million from the Ochs-Sulzberger family and The New York Times Co.; and $10 million from News Corp., which owns Fox News and The New York Post and has made a bid for The Wall Street Journal.
Overby said that without “major missionary work” such as the Newseum, the First Amendment could lose political support and “cease to exist” by the end of the century.
“But,” he added, “if, in the middle of an ethics game, people can begin to see the complexity of making decisions, that news judgement is not just black and white, that there’s an awful lot of grey that goes into this, we will have achieved our purpose.”
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