Down with the Newseum and its 6,214 journalism artifacts!

Media criticism.
Feb. 7 2008 4:22 PM

Down With the Newseum!

We don't need a gilded home for 6,214 journalism artifacts.

Newseum at night. Click image to expand.
The Newseum in Washington, D.C.

Of all the slow-moving targets that bleed profusely when you hit them, can there be a fatter, slower, juicier bull's-eye to sight your scope on than the $450 million Newseum, the four-years-in-the-building, seven-story, steel-and-glass monument to journalistic vanity just a nine iron away from Washington, D.C.'s National Mall?

One of the most expensive museums ever built, according to the New York Times' Kit Seelye, the Newseum contains 250,000 square feet of exhibit space, including 15 theaters, 14 galleries, two broadcast studios, a "4-D time-travel experience," interactive computer stations by the score, 50 tons of Tennessee marble, a three-level Wolfgang Puck restaurant, a food court, and 6,214 journalism artifacts together weighing more than  81,000 pounds ("Wonkette's" slippers, the hotel door from the Watergate break-in, a decommissioned KXAS-TV news helicopter, Rupert Murdoch's first wife, etc.).

Set to open April 11, the Newseum succeeds a much more modest Newseum that occupied a Rosslyn, Va., cul de sac just across the Potomac River for five years. The new cathedral was built primarily by the  Freedom Forum, the outfit formerly known as the Gannett Foundation, and its donors include News Corp., the Pulliams, Disney, the Hearsts, Time Warner, NBC Universal, the Greenspun family, and the Ochs-Sulzbergers. Each donor will be represented by a gallery or venue, according to a Newseum press release.

Thanks to the Newseum's Web site, the museum is like a play that can be reviewed before it opens. Like the similarly opulent $621 million Capitol Visitors Center, which is swelling out of its massive bunker behind and beneath the U.S. Capitol, the Newseum reduces its subject to shock-and-awe wraparound video shows, Disneyland-esque interactive programs, and tactile exhibits that virtualize that which should be—and can be—directly experienced.

Consider, for example, the fetishizing of trivial relics by the Newseum, such as the satchel, pencil, and eyeglasses belonging to reporter Mark Kellogg of the Bismarck Tribune, who was killed at Little Big Horn, that held a place of honor at Newseum 1.0. Fascinating curios, for sure, but gazing upon them tells you what about journalism? Repeat this lesson 6,214 times, and you get my drift. The story of journalism is not the story of the surviving relics.

Unlike other museums, whose curators have collected, pruned, and rarefied their collections over decades or centuries, the Newseum has had to invent whole categories of news artifacts to fill this Taj Mahal for journalism. Like the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, which resides just a couple of blocks away on the Mall, the Newseum suffers from the fact that curatorial power is invested in the home team. Indian tribes—and not museum professionals—ultimately got to decide what to place in the hall designed to honor them. Independent tribes of self-glorifying journalists didn't choose what to stuff inside the Newseum, but they didn't have to, because the organization was all too ready to do their bidding. You don't think News Corp. and the Sulzbergers would lend their names and money to an enterprise that would sink a shiv into the press, do you?

That the Newseum founders, like the Indians, arranged for a stunning shrine to be erected, as opposed to a more modest structure on a less ritzy lot, also speaks reams. As Andrew Ferguson wrote of the Indian palace for Bloomberg News upon its debut in 2004, the museum's "cavernous domed atrium … looks as if it were designed to be the sumptuous setting for candle-lit fundraisers. You can almost hear the clink of highball glasses and the jing-a-ling of jewelry." Both temples are more about money and getting more of it than they are about the press or Indians.

The Washington Post's Henry Allen identified the inherent weakness of the Newseum concept in a review of the original Rosslyn exhibit space in 1997. "You get more feeling for the newspaper business from Daily Planet panels in an old Superman comic than you get at the Newseum," he wrote.  There's nothing so visually spectacular about the news business, the Allen argument continued, that it demands a vast museum space adjoining the Mall. Journalism produces no Pershing II missiles or taxidermied elephants that must be preserved and displayed to remind us of "The Press."

If you're genuinely curious about the story of the press, you can find a better representation in the works themselves, commonly available in books, on microfilm, on DVD, and on the Web, not in the simulacra. If the history of broadcast news interests you, please visit the Paley Center for Media (formerly the Museum of Television & Radio) in Manhattan. You won't regret it.

Avoid the gilded disaster that is the Newseum. Avoid paying the $20 they charge for admission. I want the Freedom Forum to sell off their monument valley installation and use the proceeds to actually support journalism. Like endowing a newspaper, for instance.

******

Or how about repurposing the Newseum as a parking structure for the Lamborghini set? Send your recommendations to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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