The Corner

Culture

Washington’s Newseum Offered a Lot, but Was Flawed from the Start

The Newseum in Washington, D.C. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

Over in the Los Angeles Times, Michael Hiltzik points out what didn’t work about the soon-to-close Newseum in Washington, D.C., which will close its doors permanently January 1.

Johns Hopkins University purchased the property for $372.5 million as a new home for its graduate programs, and the Newseum was unable to find a new site for its collection. The closure is largely being treated as a tragedy for journalism, but the museum — which never broke even in any of its twelve years in Washington — suffered from some fundamental flaws from the start.

First and foremost, it is hard to imagine a worse combination of price and location: $25 per adult, $15 for kids from seven to 18, right next to all of the free Smithsonian museums on the mall. The Newseum built an extremely impressive facility . . . across the street from the National Gallery of Art, a block away from the National Archives, and four blocks from the National Museum of American History. They were asking a family of four to shell out $80 when they were almost literally surrounded by world-class museums that cost nothing. It’s amazing they ever had any visitors, really.

Once you got through the door, most visitors were probably impressed, but the museum never quite figured out how to distinguish between important historical events and coverage of important historical events. The Newseum turned into a more or less a “Museum of Recent History” — large chunks of the Berlin Wall, the Unabomber’s shack, the antenna mast that stood atop the World Trade Center’s north tower until 9/11. I had a good time going there with my boys last summer, as the theme was basically, “Important Things That Happened in Daddy’s Younger Years.” But what made these objects and exhibits significant was the event, not necessarily the news coverage of the event.

You may see some snickering about journalists’ legendary self-regard, but the museum perhaps inadvertently reveals that journalists themselves are rarely that extraordinary or fascinating; what they cover is extraordinary or fascinating.

The “Inside the FBI” exhibit was a worthy successor to the tours the Federal Bureau of Investigation used to give of its headquarters building (the tours were canceled from 2001 to 2008, and are now by appointment only). But . . . was it more about the FBI, or about “news” and journalism?

Almost every exhibit at the Newseum paled in comparison to Smithsonian counterparts. It offered an exhibit on the Civil Rights movement that was dwarfed by the National Museum of African-American history. The Newseum offered a cute display of the first dogs of the presidents, but it looked like small potatoes compared to the National Portrait Gallery’s complete set of official presidential portraits or the American presidency exhibit at the National Museum of American History. Galleries of Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoons and photographs are terrific, but . . . the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery offered their own world-class photo exhibits for free.

The Newseum offered world’s first satellite newsgathering vehicle, while the Air and Space Museum across the mall offered lunar landers and the Spirit of St. Louis.

Where would you rather spend an afternoon? Which museum is going to wow the kids? That has more to do with the museum’s closure than any overall public view on the value of journalism.

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