Friday after roaming through six floors of images, exhibits, interactive features and videos telling the compelling story of journalism, the First Amendment and news we had one big question. Back on the first floor after an emotional, inspiring and exhausting journey through some of the most tragic stories of the past two centuries, my wife Roselee found a museum worker standing behind a table. “Would it be this crowded if we were here on say a Friday in October?” she asked.
“It’s never been this crowded,” the man responded. “I’ve worked here for nine years and this is by far the most people I’ve seen here. If it was this crowded all the time, we wouldn’t be closing.”
But this particular museum — the Newseum — is closing. Standing there on Friday, Dec. 27, 2019 the last day loomed. You could count the hours until 5 p.m. on Dec. 31, 2019 when the doors to the Washington, D.C. facility located within view of the White House, would close leaving its future very much in doubt.
As a lifetime lover of newspapers and news with a 30-plus-year career as a reporter and editor, it’s unbearably sad. You can find answers about why the Newseum is closing and what will become of the thousands of artifacts here. But the upshot is, the Newseum is located on an expensive piece of property and can’t get by on donations and ticket sales. It struggles to attract a high number of visitors because of the close proximity of multiple museums in Washington that are free. It costs $25 a ticket to visit the Newseum, which makes it a pretty expensive family outing. The building itself will be taken over by Johns Hopkins University.
But people were more than willing to pay on the day we visited. Most were there for the same reason we decided to go, to see the Newseum before it vanished for who knows how long. For us it was like a pilgrimage. We are a newspaper couple, meeting in the newsroom of the Jacksonville (N.C.) Daily News. Roselee visited the Newseum several years ago, but I had not. We decided to leave North Carolina early in the morning, tour the Newseum during the afternoon, have dinner with our longtime friend Diana D’Abruzzo and return home the following day.
We arrived at the museum at around 11:30 a.m. We had anticipated a good-sized crowd of people there to squeeze in a visit. After all, we couldn’t be the only people with the idea. But we were not prepared for the sea of humanity we encountered. The line to get in stretched down Pennsylvania Avenue around the corner to C Street. The line itself moved quickly but it remained constant. When we left at around 2:30 p.m. the line was just as long.
Inside, folks collected at each exhibit area, which made taking the time to read the thousands of words impossible. In fact, we gave up on viewing the exhibit of Pulitzer Prize–winning photos dating back to 1942 because the mass of people was moving so slowly. Understandable.
In navigating the site we took the advice offered at a Hearst Theater orientation video on the Hubbard Broadcasting Concourse — go to the top floor and work your way down moving clockwise. On our way to the elevator, we ran into the Berlin Wall Gallery, the largest display of unaltered sections of the wall that once divided East and West Germany.
We had one major failure on this concourse, we arrived at the elevator before getting a chance to see the Unabomber’s cabin and the 9/11 hijackers car. Both were part of an overall display about the FBI, which we missed.
We had a chance to see almost everything else, an incredible number of theaters, 400 historic newspapers, the 9/11 exhibit with the broadcast tower that once stood atop the World Trade Center, exhibits about protest, freedom of expression the role the First Amendment played in the Civil Rights movement, the Stonewall Riots in New York, a map showing the nations where press freedoms matter and where they don’t, interactive videos showing historic news or sports broadcasts, and really too many things to mention here. Perhaps the most compelling display for someone who was reporter and editor and faced a few threats of physical violence or verbal abuse, two massive walls displaying the photos and names of journalists killed in the field.
Photos really don’t do the Newseum justice and on the day we were there it was almost impossible to get a photo of some items. For example, I was interested in the exhibit about Don Bolles, an investigative reporter assassinated by the mob in Arizona in 1976 by a car bomb because of stories he wrote about land fraud. The car was part of the display but so many people were clustered around it, a photo was impossible to get.
One significant image I did get was of a bronze cast of the cell door of the Birmingham jail where the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was imprisoned.
This was part of an overall display about the fight for Civil Rights in America and the role and sacrifices of African-American leaders in bringing about this change. Another display also featured African-American newspapers and journalism.
As I mentioned, the 9/11 exhibit was prominent and included historic front pages reporting the deadliest act of terrorism on American soil.
The history of news gathering and reporting had multiple exhibits.
And anyone who worked in the 1980s when I started knows these things well — the old Radio Shack TRS-80 remote unit better known as the Trash-80. It allowed us to write stories off site and send it to the office via telephone.
In a kiosk there were multiple stations where visitors could call up old news or sports reports. I chose this one.
And there were many testimonials and exhibits surrounding the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights and other freedoms that built the foundation of a great nation, something that seems threatened today. There was even a freedom of expression exhibit where visitors could offer opinions on a variety of topics.
I had a sense of melancholy as we left the Newseum. I had seen a lot in just under three hours, but somehow not nearly enough. I am saddened that the Newseum is closing — at least for now — and hope that it can find a new home to house all of the historic treasures that are there. A traveling exhibit has been proposed, but that wouldn’t tell even a fraction of the story that unfolds at the Newseum as it closes. It will be remembered as an incredibly organized and well designed monument to freedom and the press. Today, as newspapers hit the last stages of a lengthy lifespan and a digital era takes over, we need to remember the importance of journalism and its role in our freedoms more than ever before.