The Newseum, an interactive museum in Washington, D.C., is dedicated to the role of journalism in history. Sound dull and preachy? Not at all. In fact, it was declared the “best museum ever” by my three under-10 companions this past weekend.
Where else can you peer inside Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s stark cabin? Or stand in front of a real television camera and give your own fast-paced sports report? Or feel the breeze on your face as you ride the ferry to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island alongside investigative reporter Nelly Bly?
A relatively recent addition to the institutions around the National Mall, the Newseum opened in its current location in 2008, after a move from previous digs across the Potomac in Arlington. Besides significant front pages, newsreels, and press passes, the fascinating collection includes iconic artifacts like Kaczynski’s cabin, eight 12-foot-high segments of the Berlin Wall, a recreation of Tim Russert’s office, and the peacoat that heiress Patty Hearst wore while robbing the Hibernia Bank.
The current exhibitions range from easy-on-the-conscience crowd pleasers to more thought-provoking and difficult subjects. The splashy spectacular work of Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss is on display through March 31, 2011. First Dogs, which runs through the end of the year, showcases Presidential pets. Also on exhibit through the end of 2011, is the NBC office of Tim Russert, the longtime moderator of Meet the Press who died suddenly in 2008, recreated in faithful and cluttered detail.
A more emotionally potent exhibit, Covering Katrina includes not only front-page coverage of the 2005 hurricane from newspapers around the world, but moving evidence of the devastation: a kayak used by a Times-Picayune reporter to get around the flooded Ninth Ward, a plywood SOS sign that people on the roofs of wrecked houses used to signal rescue helicopters, and video reports of increasingly skeptical television journalists covering the first days and months of the government’s response to the crisis. The three very active children with us were moved enough by the material to stand still to read captions and ask probing questions.
The kids’ favorite activity, though, was the second floor Be a Reporter exhibit, where several small studio settings allow visitors to stand in front of a live television camera and read a teleprompter (or improvise). Your report is broadcast on the monitors around the room, and for just $5, you can download a video of your report to your home computer. The adjoining gallery, full of computer kiosks, invites visitors to learn more about journalism through games: among them activities both factual—First Amendment quizzes—and on-the-job training—your photos of a news story (“taken” by selecting frames of a news video) are critiqued by a photo editor for their newsworthiness.
Parents note: We expected to stay in the museum for only a couple of hours, but met with resistance when we suggested a break for lunch. No kidding. So allot some time (and budget—this is not one of the ‘free’ Smithsonian museums) for a visit. Also, don’t hit the second floor first or they’ll never see the rest of the remarkable collection.
Even in a city crammed with great museums, the Newseum merits a boldface position on your itinerary.
The Newseum (newseum.org; 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.; 888/639-7386. Take the Metro to Archives/Navy Memorial/Penn Quarter.)
Ann Shields is Online Senior Editor at TravelandLeisure.com.