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Celebrating the Fourth Estate

Contrary to most museums, the Newseum is dedicated to a fast-paced, immediate kind of art. Narrates Sebastian John, an Indian journalist living in Washington, D.C.

Tarik Khan (left) and Maggie Motley make a Valentine’s Day-themed video at the Newseum
The Newseum is one of the few spots on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. not run by the U.S. government. In a sense, it watches over both the nearby U.S. Congress and the White House. And it isn’t subtle about it, either. A 22-meter-tall marble tablet on the building’s exterior prominently proclaims the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The Newseum is a celebration of the free press—and also a reminder of the heavy price that is sometimes paid to maintain that freedom. Beyond the line of television cameras, the interactive touch screen computer games and a graffiti-covered section of the original Berlin Wall, lies a quiet monument cased in clear, etched glass. It is a place of light, of mourning, and of honor—a memorial to journalists who were killed for their work or died in pursuit of a story. Indian photojournalist Pradeep Bhatia’s photo is on display, and a nearby touch screen allows visitors to read his story. Killed in 2000, at the age of 31, while investigating a grenade explosion in Srinagar, for the Hindustan Times, Bhatia’s story is one of 2,007 tragic tales commemorated in this space. Of these, 73 occurred in India.

Today’s Front Pages

The front pages displayed daily in front of the Newseum look like expensive works of art. They are framed in podiums with custom lighting so that passersby can read them by day or by night. They provide a snapshot of the times we live in, illustrated by what newspaper editors from more than 50 countries choose to showcase on their front page. While only a small selection can be put on display on Pennsylvania Avenue, more than 600 other front pages can be viewed daily on the Newseum Web site. Twenty newspapers from India participate, including The Telegraph, Deccan Chronicle, Asian Age, Patrika, Naidunia, and more. To be featured, a newspaper must enter into a special agreement with the Newseum, and upload a PDF or JPEG image of their front page to a special FTP site daily. “We’re actively looking for more volunteer newspapers,” says Susan Bennett, the Newseum’s senior vice president for exhibits and programmes
The Newseum, which opened in its permanent space on Pennsylvania Avenue in 2008, receives an average of 7,00,000 visitors per year and recently welcomed its two millionth visitor. Being dedicated to a fast-paced, immediate kind of art, it pursues a path contrary to that of most museums. While it does look back at history, it also spends a great deal of time in the present. Its hybrid staff of museum curators and journalists create both classic exhibits and constantly changing ones that reflect the headlines of the day. Susan Bennett, senior vice president for exhibits and programmes, remembers when David Broder, a Pulitzer-prize-winning political columnist for The Washington Post, died in March this year, the Newseum had an exhibit up the next day.

Bennett, a former journalist who puts her deadline skills to good use, says that her new job is similar to reporting. “It’s telling a good story, but it’s telling a good story on a wall. Some people don’t like to read standing up, so you need tricks and techniques to get people’s attention,” she says. Making full use of technology is one way to do this. A 4-D theater puts visitors inside the minds of famous journalists such as Nellie Bly, who in 1887 went undercover in an asylum to illustrate the terrible conditions patients experienced there. Another exhibit showcases how people in the Middle East used Twitter and Facebook to disseminate information earlier this year.

“Journalists are not the only gatekeepers of news in the way that they have been historically,” Bennett says. In fact, a fresh exhibit on new media, and how it has influenced classic forms of journalism, is under development. Much of the museum covers serious issues and historical events, but visitors can also view light-hearted exhibits on U.S. Presidents’ dogs, or even be part of their own newscast in front of a television camera. Tarik Khan, who made a Valentine’s Day-themed video, says his first visit to the Newseum “brought back an appreciation of journalists as a whole,” especially in the days when newspaper subscriptions in America are dwindling, and many Americans get their news for free online. Looking at the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs and newsreels, he was reminded of his own memories of important events. “I didn’t really know what to expect, but they did a good job at making it interactive and drawing you in,” Khan says.

Span Magazine, May/June11


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