The museum’s intricate layout and spatial metaphors embody the architect’s latest collaboration with Ralph Appelbaum Associates, a leading New York-based exhibition design firm. Ralph Appelbaum first gained national prominence in 1993 for his emotionally powerful use of design at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which served as a model for a whole generation of history museums. Since then, he has worked with Polshek on the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Appelbaum also designed the first, more modest Newseum, which opened in 1997 and closed in 2002 after welcoming more than 2.25 million visitors to its interactive exhibits and memorial park. Susan Bennett, the Newseum’s deputy director and vice president for marketing, notes that the original “starter museum” was an invaluable planning aid. “We had five years of practice where we got a chance to observe people and see how they reacted,” says Bennett. “One of the mantras was that we didn’t want to improve ourselves into failure. We wanted to take the things that worked there and make it bigger and better.” Many features of the Washington Newseum—a display of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs, a video wall, a chronological survey of news history, and the interactive newsroom, among others—debuted in Arlington. Others, such as a World News Gallery that salutes journalistic heroism abroad, fill in perceived gaps in the museum’s storyline.
The designer makes sweeping claims for this Newseum, which he insists is not simply an interactive museum of journalism and news. “What it really is,” says Appelbaum, “is a history museum of the evolution of the American mind. It defines how we created our moral compass, [and] how we’ve come to think about our political history. It is a catalog of American thought.”
Appelbaum is unquestionably one of the great theorists of contemporary museum design. But some of his firm’s recent work, including the Clinton library and the National Constitutional Center, has struck me as overwrought: too wordy, noisy, and dense. This may not be entirely his fault. Exhibition designers are perpetually warring with curators, who generally want more content and don’t understand how antiquated “book on the wall” exhibits can seem, especially when texts overwhelm the artifacts and images on display. (Bennett says that the journalists on the Newseum’s staff did learn to write shorter.) There’s also the constant pressure to appeal to every kind of visitor: the old and the young, the “strollers” and the “streakers,” dedicated readers and theme-park aficionados.
As befits a media museum, the Newseum does employ a wide range of techniques, from interactive games to the traditional juxtaposition of artifacts with wall texts. At its best, it weds cutting-edge technology to rich content. In the Great Books Gallery, for example, rare volumes and documents relating to the freedom of the press, such as Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica and a 1787 pamphlet-printing of the U.S. Constitution, are readable on interactive monitors that allow visitors to turn digital pages.
An Ethics Table in the Interactive Newsroom is also state of the art, responding to gesture and touch as teams compete to answer questions about what news is, in fact, fit to print. Each correct answer adds a story or photograph to a digital front page. In the Internet, TV, and Radio Gallery, viewers can move digitally through a fascinating library of historic radio and television clips, including pop-culture highlights like the Beatles’ ecstatic 1964 U.S. tour.
As he did at the information-rich (and wildly boosterish) Clinton library, Appelbaum uses textual highlighting to provide summaries for visitors unwilling to read long labels—a reasonable compromise between old and new. At the same time, the museum caters to those who prefer to absorb information in visual and aural formats. That means that films are shown not just in theaters but in the middle of galleries, flooding exhibits with ambient sound. (You’ll find few earphones and no audio tours, a mixed blessing.)
In this age of multitasking, iPods, and private cell-phone conversations in public places, the audio overload may not cause universal annoyance. But I found it frustrating to try to read The New York Herald’s storied account of the 1912 Titanic disaster while, behind me, Dan Aykroyd kept referring to his Saturday Night Live nemesis as “Jane, you ignorant slut.”
So how exactly will visitors experience this multimedia shrine? The overall design concept for the Newseum, Appelbaum told me, is analogous to “a Sunday newspaper at the extreme.” It’s at once linear and nonlinear, with visitors able to dip into galleries according to their interests. In fact, only the most masochistic or stoic should attempt to see the whole place in a single visit.