The second week of placement was more of a stress roller coaster than the first, and although I’m reminding myself to take my time and not to panic, I jumped at a fellow Fellow’s suggestion that we take advantage of Free Museum Day on Saturday. We scanned the DC list and both agreed on the Newseum as the most expensive venue so the most desirable freebie.
The Newseum, a museum of the news, is a fascinating examination of the biggest news stories of the last century or so and all their different aspects. At the very start, there are eight sections of the Berlin Wall and a watch tower that monitored the border near Checkpoint Charlie. With all eight sections lined up together, it was striking that the West Berlin side of the wall was covered with graffiti while the East Berlin side was painted white, the better to spot people trying to get over.
One entire floor was devoted to front pages. A wall display showed the day’s cover of a newspaper from every state, although Connecticut was not represented by the Hartford Courant that day. In the second gallery, front pages from a variety of newspapers were displayed to highlight the major news stories back to the founding of the country. There were newspapers publishing the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg address. Of all the war news throughout our 200+ year history, I was particularly impressed by the “Wallpaper edition” published by resourceful newsmen of Vicksburg, MI during the Civil War after the long siege had made regular paper scarce. The scrollwork pattern of the paper was still visible through the print.
September 11th was a theme that ran through many exhibits and was also the topic of its own exhibit featuring a section of the mangled broadcast tower from atop the North building of the World Trade Center and front pages of the next day from all 50 states and from countries around the world. There was also a timeline not of the events themselves, but of when the events were reported. Each news item comes across the wire with a tag to indicate its urgency, so nearly all the items were tagged as “alerts,” normally the top level. The tag, “flash” indicating the highest priority and used only rarely appeared twice on 9/11, once when each of the towers collapsed.
Another gallery focused on the five freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment. Can you name all five? There was a statistic that only 3% of the people in a group interviewed for the exhibit could name all five, and I’ll freely confess that although I probably could have come up with Speech, Press, Religion, and possibly Assembly, that Freedom to Petition the government would certainly have eluded me. The display highlighted not only past issues involving these freedoms but also current questions particularly involving the internet and the extent of students’ rights to freedoms of press, speech, and religion.
The World Press Freedom Map provided significant food for thought. It displayed a map of the world with the media in each country categorized as free, partly free, or not free. The U.S., which has some of the strongest protections for a free press, did not come out on top of the “free” list since the rapidly diminishing number of newspapers is reducing the scope of coverage and the number of viewpoints available. It was also interesting that although most of Europe rated as free, Italy was only rated as partly free since former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi owned 90% of the media outlets in that country.
The Pulitzer Prize Photographs exhibit was a very moving and at times emotionally overwhelming display. Although some of the photographs summoned a smile or a laugh, too many of the photos illustrated the horrors of what humans can do to each other. In the center of the exhibit were benches and a video, so I sat and watched for a while to recover my equilibrium. I’m glad that I did because in the video, some of the photographers discussed the power of a still image. They contrasted a movie clip of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima with the photograph that captured a single moment in the action. With the movie, I allowed the action to present itself to me, whereas with the photograph, my eyes explored all of the picture’s aspects, zooming in on the flag, the men, or the background one instant and pulling back to take in the overall effect the next.
Lest you think it was all doom and gloom, there was quite a bit of humor presented as well. Well-chosen clips from Saturday Night Live, the Daily Show, the Colbert Report, and Laugh In punctuated the Presidential campaign exhibits, and in the Presidential Photographs exhibit, my favorite was President Harding holding his dog while both of them threw back their heads and howled.
I was impressed that the exhibits are designed to be dynamic. In at least two places, there were references to the death of the U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens less than a month ago in Benghazi. Museums are often perceived as places you go to see things that are old or no longer used. The Newseum is a great perspective on breaking news throughout American history, but it is obviously also a place that will stay fresh and interesting as well. I highly recommend it.
Tip: We did the museum comprehensively from top to bottom looking in detail at every exhibit. Our tickets were good for two days, so we spent nearly five hours each on Saturday and Sunday. When we left at 1:30 on Saturday afternoon, there was a huge line out the door of people waiting to get in. That was a function of the free tickets, certainly, but an early start was key for both days.