Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Scoop on the Newseum

Museum guards must eavesdrop on the most interesting snippets of public conversations throughout the day, the kind of stuff you expect to read the next morning in "Overheard in DC". Much of it is likely gossip or assumptions visitors make about the content of museum exhibitions. The Washington Post ran an article a few years ago which suggested that parents often feel pressured to make up answers to questions their children ask if they are stumped. At the Newseum, however, facts are central to the news presentations and programs. So it was with great satisfaction that I overheard teens visiting the museum on a school field trip discussing what they were reading, amazed that truth could be more interesting than fiction.

To be honest, going to the Newseum, billed as Washington DC's most interactive museum, was a bit of an indulgence for me. Admission for adults is expensive at $19.95 (free for kids 6 and under), and I wasn't certain that there would be much to interest my toddler son. But I was encouraged to visit the museum at its new home on Pennsylvania Avenue after reading reviews from enthusiastic parents of satisfied kids on Yelp DC. They were right; it was worth it! I saved myself a little money by ordering advance tickets online for a 10% discount. The tickets were valid for two days, so we passed them on to some friends who were interested in going the second day. Group discounts are also available and school groups can attend for free. A word to the wise, though, some of the material on display is "intense" and may be inappropriate for children or some visitors. Look for signs that provide advance warning for parents and guardians.

The Newseum is within walking distance of Metro stations serving all train lines. Outside of the museum entrance is a display of the day's headlines published on front pages of newspapers from all over the U.S. and the world. On the day we visited, a small town paper in Missouri announced a new performance at a repertory theater while the Washington Post ran a lead story about health-care reform legislation. It was fascinating to see these differences, and I was impressed that the museum updates its displays daily to keep up with the 21st century demand for 24/7 global news feeds.

It's hard to miss the news helicopter and high definition media screen suspended in the atrium as you first approach the ticket counter. It speaks to the airy spaciousness of this beautifully designed building. The exhibits are extensive and varied, spreading across seven floors. We picked up a few informative visitors guides at the counter (which are also refreshingly up-to-date in their description of the exhibitions, including the temporary special exhibits) and took the elevator down to the Concourse level. The food court, aptly name the Food Section, was the perfect place to grab a quick bite to eat. We brought our lunch to save a few dollars, but there is a kids menu available. After taking a closer look at the guides, we decided to take a self-guided tour following suggestions from the "Newseum's Top Ten" and "Two-Hour Highlights Tour" brochures. The "Visitors Guide" contains clear maps that will help you navigate the museum quickly to make efficient use of your time.

We continued to look around the Concourse after lunch. Here we found the largest exhibit of graffiti-covered sections of the Berlin Wall outside of Germany, a Conus 1 news satellite truck (similar to those we've witnessed broadcasting live reports around Washington, DC), and a sports photography display which all captivated my son. One temporary exhibit featured life-size photo cut-outs of notorious crime figures that visitors can pose with for pictures. The school kids visiting the museum seemed to enjoy this opportunity to take pix of their friends since photography is prohibited in some exhibits to protect the artifacts. These include personal effects of journalists (from customized cameras used to capture prize-winning images to battered laptops and other reporting tools), curious objects such as the Unabomber's cabin and a door that "played a starring role in the Watergate scandal", and the in-tact, relocated NBC bureau office of Meet the Press moderator and family-man, Tim Russert. Other galleries showcase original copies of newspapers highlighting important events in U.S. and world history and influential books on freedom from the last 500 years. A Learning Center and Educator-Gallery Tours provide educational offerings for school groups and professional development for adults. We stopped to listen to a bit of one tour and learned that additional resources for students and teachers may be accessed online.

Professional photographers have said that the best pictures make a viewer laugh, cry, or simply feel something. Photojournalists have the distinct privilege and power to make thousands of other people care about their subjects. It was with this in mind that I toured the Pulitzer Prize Winning Photographs on the first floor. Most of the images were captured by career journalists with a few notable exceptions, those taken by passersby who happened to have a camera at the right place and time. Highschool students looking at these photos asked thought-provoking questions, like, "Why didn't he just put down his camera and help those people?". The Journalists Memorial is also sobering to experience and begs the question why journalists put themselves in harms way to cover wars and work in countries that deny free speech and other human rights. Interactive kiosks and games of judgment in the Ethics Center help museum-goers consider the difficult decisions journalists must often make.

The Interactive Newsroom on the second floor provides lighter diversions. Big kids can try reading the news in front of a live camera, and youngsters are challenged to separate fact from rumor as virtual reporters solving a "Who Dunnit?"-type touchscreen computer game. My son enjoyed helping investigate how wild animals escaped from a circus downtown by watching and progressing an animated sequence by touching the computer screen. To observe how real TV studios operate, visit the Knight Studio on Pennsylvania Avenue. ABC’s news show "This Week" is taped every Sunday morning in the studio. More learning and entertainment opportunities come by way of fifteen (!) theaters showing original films about the Newseum, documentary photography, sports history, the First Amendment, and breaking news. The Annenberg Theater even provides a 4-D film experience, "I-Witness!", a 3-D movie (you wear the funny glasses) with motion effects, air gusts, and more. Museum talks and special movie screenings also take place at the Annenberg Theater. See the Calendar of Events for more information.

We appreciated that the Newseum has plenty to interest folks of all ages. The temporary exhibit, "First Dogs: Presidential Pets in the White House" was perfect for toddlers as the photo enlargements were placed low, at their eye level. We voted on our favorite pet by placing a penny in a tube near the display. Other points of interest, especially for families with younger children, are the Comics exhibit on the Concourse level, the Internet, TV and Radio Gallery on Level 3, and the Terrace on the 6th floor. The small comics exhibit only takes a short time to see, and kids will love the colorful Sunday comics on display. There are familiar characters like Calvin and Hobbes as well as the first published comic strips. The Terrace on Pennsylvania Avenue offers a stunning rooftop view of downtown Washington, DC looking East to the U.S. Capitol Building and West to the Washington Monument. An exhibit spanning the terrace rail documents, in words and pictures, the events that shaped historic Pennsylvania Avenue, from Presidential processions to political demonstrations. A 25-foot high multimedia timeline in the Internet, TV, and Radio Gallery reflects the evolution of technology, from radio to the Internet to the Kindle, as it has impacted the delivery of news. Early newspaper editors were considered celebrities and had their likenesses reproduced on trading cards, but the 21st century has witnessed the general public using "the power of the mass media" via social networking media like Twitter and weblogs.

If a trip to the museum doesn't fit into your budget, the Newseum website still has something to offer. A news trivia game and virtual museum tour are available on the Fun and Games page. Online galleries featured on the Exhibits and Theaters page showcase the work of news photographers. By the time we left the Newseum that day, though, I better understood why the admission tickets allow entry for two consecutive days. We appreciated every minute of our visit, and there was still so much left to experience. While I had blown my activity budget for the week, I felt better knowing it went to support a worthwhile cause.

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