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.
Visitors enter through the Great Hall of News, where the day’s headlines rush by on an electronic zipper. After that prologue, the main narrative begins on the concourse level with an orientation film, What’s News, an elegant montage of still photos and video whose themes are taken up later in the Early News Gallery. After a quick look at a satellite truck and an exhibition on the Berlin Wall—which credits the free flow of information for the wall’s demise—visitors proceed to the sixth floor and work their way downstairs and forward in time.
Along the way, they’ll encounter another Appelbaum signature: the large, emotionally charged artifact. Besides graffiti-covered sections of the Berlin Wall, the museum boasts an armored Chevrolet truck pocked by bullets and shrapnel from fighting in the Balkans, and the twisted wreckage of a television antenna salvaged from the North Tower of the World Trade Center. In the World News Gallery, the laptop and passport of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl, kidnapped and slain while reporting on terrorism in Pakistan, will no doubt provoke a shiver or two.
The Newseum’s collection includes more than six thousand other artifacts, exclusive of newspapers and photographs. Among those displayed are the door of the Democratic headquarters penetrated by burglars during the 1972 Watergate break-in, Ana Marie Cox’s sequined slippers (worn while she wrote her political blog Wonkette), and a trs-80 RadioShack computer, a primitive portable nicknamed the “Trash-80” that many of us toted to political conventions and national disasters in the 1980s. (By the time mine broke down, the warehouse no longer had replacement parts.)