The museum’s location, at the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and Sixth Street, is also symbolically resonant. Its wraparound terraces offer spectacular views of the National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian museums, the National Archives, and the U.S. Capitol, which serves as a broadcast backdrop and a reminder of the press’s guardian role. On the sixth-floor terrace, an exhibit details the history of Pennsylvania Avenue—the site of presidential inaugural parades, funeral processions, mass protests, and Newspaper Row, where out-of-town correspondents once plied their trade. (Not coincidentally, their offices were situated next to another journalistic institution: Rum Row.)
The Newseum’s most striking interior space is the atrium, where visitors can gaze overhead at a news helicopter and a replica of the satellite that sent the first television signal across the continent. As they ride three massive hydraulic elevators between the concourse and sixth levels, they can survey a concrete guard tower from near Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie, as well as the master control room that serves as the museum’s nerve center. Smaller side elevators, ramps, and stairways allow movement between floors. From multiple vantage points, visitors can read engraved quotations trumpeting the importance of journalism, journalists, and a free press. “Let the people know the facts,” declares President Abraham Lincoln, himself the object of considerable press vituperation, “and the country will be safe.”
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.