With newspapers becoming relics, can a museum about journalism be anything more than a tomb?
Designed by Polshek Partnership Architects
Exhibition design by Ralph Appelbaum Associates
Once news takes wing, it’s no longer news. It becomes history if we continue to care about it, and trivia if we don’t. That paradox is evident in Washington, D.C.’s newly opened Newseum: The $450 million, 250,000-square-foot museum dedicated to the fourth estate is meant to be a stronghold for free expression. And at this moment, given the modern media’s humbling by the online insurgency (blogs, web-only organs, electronic classified ads), the Newseum serves as a pious way to plug journalism’s civic purpose. But what your $20 ticket buys is a lot of information that isn’t technically news anymore—what you get is a history museum. It may be too late to win back the mainstream newspaper readers and TV-news viewers lost in recent years to apathy, ill faith, and the Internet, but the Newseum attempts to tell those wayward throngs what the privilege of sound, steady reportage used to be like.
It does so with an abundance of mandates and metaphors. Its founder, the nonprofit Freedom Forum, was started by USA Today founder Al Neuharth in 1991; the original Newseum opened in Arlington, Virginia, in 1997 to help promote the Freedom Forum’s ideals of “free press, free speech, and free spirit for all people.” In 2002, the Freedom Forum closed the comparatively puny Arlington facility, having seized the last plum spot on the famous inaugural-parade stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue NW for a new building. This site, with its full view of the Capitol building a few blocks east, can be read as a memo to Congress and the White House that the media keeps a scrupulous eye on public affairs. It’s of less comfort to know that hidden just behind the Canadian Chancery next door lies the federal courthouse from which a special prosecutor recently sent a Times reporter to jail for not divulging her sources. There are checks to our system of governance, but there are also imbalances that make the First Amendment, carved into a three-story-high tablet of Tennessee marble hung on the Newseum’s facade, seem more prayerful than ever.
Indeed, in packaging the Newseum, the architects at the Polshek Partnership, along with its brother-act exhibition designer, Ralph Appelbaum Associates, have summoned more heroic optimism than you’ll find in any newsroom today, given declining old-media revenues, a smaller-format New York Times, and a Wall Street Journal now owned by Rupert Murdoch. The Bill of Rights provides the frankest of the Newseum’s various symbols, while the glass composing the seven-story building’s layered, scored, and fin-dressed cubes (stepped back to relieve the structure’s bulk and to evoke newspaper pages) itself represents transparency—an idealistic allusion for a business that is, inexorably, a business.
Within all these layers of meaning, James Stewart Polshek’s strongest suit is his free, though firmly controlled, structural expression—the way the heavy architecture out front leads your eye around so you can decode what holds up the building. To open up the Newseum’s canyonlike 90-foot-high atrium, with its stacked, vertiginous catwalks and floating escalators skewed this way and that, he has laid two horizontal trusses spanning 250 feet across the top and hung galleries from either end. Behind the main facade’s finely detailed curtain wall, muscular vertical columns vault to the roof, dominating an interior landscape of layered grids around the atrium. When seen from the curb, through a huge proscenium window punched in the facade, all these internal layers—one of them a 29-by-51-foot-long hi-def video monitor—look like a too-hectic attempt to concretize the media’s constant state of apoplexy.
Up close, for the most part, Polshek’s tectonic sentences are finished fluently by Appelbaum’s exhibition schemes. Between them, the two designers have long since codified the museum world’s answer to corporate modernism and limned it in brushed stainless steel. Visitors are meant to take any of three huge glass elevators—the guts of which are fully and symbolically laid bare—to the seventh floor and then circle back down through 14 separate galleries, encountering no fewer than 15 theaters and two working broadcast studios along the way. (From one of those studios, George Stephanopoulos will be anchoring ABC’s “This Week” on Sundays.)
Appelbaum also goes for impressive numbers, but at times his technique emphasizes quantity over quality: A top-floor gallery, for example, displays 80 of the day’s front pages from around the world, heedless of whether viewers will care about what made headlines in today’s Tucson Citizen—it’s the same Associated Press wire story about the banking crisis that also appeared in hundreds of other papers.
Real media geeks will search for singularity. There’s a Bell 206B Jet Ranger news copter hanging in the atrium. Did it once dog O.J. down the freeway? No. It’s only from Fort Worth, but it makes the space more exciting. Down the length of the news-history gallery—the Newseum’s largest—Appelbaum has installed banks of weighty metal drawers, stacked three-high within arm’s reach, which you can pull out to inspect rare news organs dating back to the 1400s. On one side, in a Great Books display, a real printed version of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense is behind glass, but you can page through an electronic copy of the pamphlet on a touch-screen.
Much of the news—or, rather, the history the Newseum seems intent to relive—involves death and destruction, which validates the monumental inclusions of a broken mast from the World Trade Center, portions of the Berlin Wall, and an ethereal etched-glass memorial to journalists killed on the job. But the death notice you won’t find here—yet—is that of professional news organizations at the populist hands of bloggers. For now, the Internet receives asterisk billing, lumped in with radio and TV, on Level 3. The marginal position seems a little wishful, and it makes you wonder whether the Newseum folks are even reading the business pages, and whether the place will soon seem even more elegiac than the Freedom Forum intended, becoming one huge memorial to real news itself.
Bradford McKee, an I.D. contributing editor, lives in Washington, D.C.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ERIC TAYLOR