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'Ingredients of a great story'

North Laurel facility is Newseum's treasure trove

By Tony Glaros

3:08 PM EDT, September 16, 2013

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The Newseum Support Center does business in low-profile fashion inside a one-story structure in a knot of warehouses in North Laurel. But don’t dismiss its lack of curb appeal. Within its walls is a rich and vibrant stash of artifacts that, collectively, retell journalism’s quirky, melodramatic backstory.

The facility, just south of Route 1 and Whiskey Bottom Road, functions as the go-to arm of the Newseum, the glassy and gleaming edifice midway between the White House and the Capitol. The Support Center is where centuries’ worth of news, information and tangible remnants gleaned from the trenches are painstakingly archived. And it is where events that carve deep impressions are distilled into exquisitely wrought exhibits that dazzle the senses. The popular museum devotes its seven floors to tracking print and electronic news -- how a story is hatched, the way it is reported, written, edited and circulated to a waiting audience.

The towering main exterior wall is enshrined with words from the First Amendment. Since its move in 2008 from across the Potomac River in Arlington, Va., to much larger quarters in the District, visitors have it all at their fingertips: galleries, theaters, retail shops and visitors services. (Coming in November: costumes and artifacts from the 2004 movie “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” starring Will Ferrell.)  The Newseum’s owner, The Freedom Forum, is a nonpartisan foundation whose mission is to promote the cause of “free speech, free press and free spirit for all people.

But a significant part of the work required to fill the 250,000-square-foot facility in the district takes place behind the scenes, 20 miles up Interstate 95 in southern Howard County.

Late on a Friday afternoon at the Support Center, library manager Rick Mastroianni is busy making sense of the media profession and the role the Newseum plays in adding perspective to the news -- what one publisher famously labeled “the first rough draft of history.”

By allowing intellectual drippings from the Fourth Estate to marinate, he is better equipped to do his job: to clarify the experience for the legion of visitors who descend daily in the news capital of the free world. It’s a task, he declares, he never tires of. “We all care deeply about the work we are doing. It’s fun to do. It resonates with people, and it has all the ingredients of a great story.”

Mastroianni explains his role in the gargantuan operation is to serve inside staff. A big chunk of his duties -- one that regularly takes him downtown to sit in on writers’ meetings -- is to fact-check the information on the scripts that appear with exhibits. Unlike an editor on deadline who, at times, can catch and copyedit an error, applying the same process for an exhibit is a different animal. “It’s a very expensive process,” he concedes. “You don’t want to get it wrong and have to redo it. ... We’re conceptualizing what will go up in 2014, 2015. It depends on the scale and scope.”

While the Support Center doesn’t permit visitors, Mastroianni notes he will field the occasional phone call from a documentary producer foraging for video footage. “I help them as I can, but generally I just steer them in the right direction.”

Beyond the carrels, in a nearby office space, Kathryn Wilmot, the curatorial specialist, carefully sorts out front pages of newspapers that document the April 15 bombing of the Boston Marathon. One headline, built in giant font, screams out “Terror at the Finish Line.” She tends to both the traditional print editions and the digital presentation. “Each newspaper that comes in gets its own cataloging number,” she explains. “There’s a big push to use primary sources.” And in an era where news is churned out in today’s frenetic 24-hour news cycle, Wilmot also is required to keep abreast of the news summaries from CNN and other information providers. “It helps me to see what I can add to the collection.” Going online and scouring the daily front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post also help her infuse context into national and global events. 

Wilmot tends to a collection that reaches back to 1493 with an important tome. “It’s called Incunabula, the Nuremberg Chronicle,” she explains. “It’s basically the history of the world.” The book was purchased at auction. But the lion’s share of the Newseum’s treasury comes from donations from the general public.

Hands down, she reports, the most frequent question she fields deals with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. “If someone’s offering a duplicate (of a newspaper or periodical), we won’t take it, because there’s only so much storage space. We already have over 35,000 newspapers here.”

On a door in a dimly lit hallway, Wilmot punches in a security code. In a small room, heavy with the pungent aroma of paste, she explains that she’s been busy reattaching slivers of pages that have fallen off historic newspapers. This represents the backbone of why people flock to the Newseum. She does the job with the help of Japanese long fibers and wheat starch paste. “I can humidify things with a cardboard box and cool steam. It helps relax the newsprint.” Then she smooths the newly whole page using blotter paper and a weight. From there, it’s shipped downtown and put on display.

In yet another room that she oversees, Wilmot stands before a seamless array of commercial-grade steel shelving. Each shelf brims with 600 archival boxes containing old newspapers and magazines. The low hum that engulfs the room, she notes, is the air-conditioning system. Ideally, to preserve the newsprint, the thermometer must be kept at a constant 68 degrees and the humidity at 45 percent. She gingerly opens one of the boxes to produce an original Boston News-Letter from 1719. “It was the second newspaper in America,” she says, the enthusiasm in her voice bordering on contagious.

While ink on newsprint has spanned generations, it wasn’t always the case, she emphasizes. Before the 19th century, newspapers were printed on cotton and linen, which held up well over time. In fact, newspapers used to run ads that read “Bring Us Your Old Rags” and paid 2 cents for each contribution. Later, in order to save money, newsprint replaced cotton, she says, but trees and their acidity fall far short in terms of how they stand up to the ravages of time.

The contents of another warehouse-like space evoke a deep sense of nostalgia. At first blush, it looks like nothing more than dusty goodies at a garage sale. But look closer. The inventory pulsates with a tasty buffet of relics that, once upon a time, belonged to icons: a desk crafted by Andy Rooney and the anchor desk where Peter Jennings once sat and peered into the camera. Other hardware includes a Linotype machine culled from the era when newspapers were produced using hot metal; a Buffalo Evening News delivery wagon; a black and white TV; and a USA Today news rack that made it, largely unscathed, through Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In another corner is a piece of the Berlin Wall and sections of the broadcast towers that toppled with the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. 

Wilmot, an Illinois native who earned master’s degrees in public history and library science, is also excited about a recently unveiled civil rights exhibit. She stands over an undulating assortment of headlines from periodicals like Time magazine that scream “Paratroopers at Little Rock.” That one, from Oct. 7, 1957, describes the impact of public school desegregation.

Another quiet corridor leads to a vast carpentry shop that bubbles with tools of the trade: a metal-cutting band saw, a tig welder and a table saw. Overseeing the construction of the exhibits for the Newseum is Nate Crouch. He’s charged with the task of infusing the exhibits with visual splendor while making sure they’re durable. Presently, Crouch is laser-focused on fortifying a camera housing -- part of the Newseum’s high-tech, hands-on approach -- so visitors can “still engage with them, but not damage them.”

The majority of the exhibits, he observes, are born of wood, metal or plastic. Crouch, whose father was a furniture maker, asserts it makes sense to make the exhibits in-house, given the quick turnaround from the conceptualization phase to the workshop. “It’s more efficient and more economical ... especially if some of the elements of the design change.”  

Crouch, who has worked at the Support Center for five years, points out a project that resonates with him: the John F. Kennedy exhibit on the sixth floor of the Newseum. “It’s the last exhibit we finished,” he says. “It was so massive!” 

Meanwhile, Wilmot acknowledges that working where the echoes of history abound can bring random moments of meditation. For example, once, when she was pulling out a box from “a creepy cabinet,” she realized it held a newspaper from the days of Jim Crow, when racial segregation was the rule of law. The newspaper she plumbed had an article instructing “coloreds” to go one way and “whites” to go another. The surreal image sparked sadness in her. “Oh, you feel that shame. It was like ‘Why did we do that?’ You look back with today’s eyes, and you’re judging it. So it gets personal.”

For Mastroianni, who holds a master’s in library science from The Catholic University of America, the job is not defined by the age of the search engine. The time-honored tradition of sleuthing is still en vogue. “It’s like peeling an onion. You can find a hundred sources on the Internet. We try to go back to primary sources. Is there more to this than what I’m seeing? Does the author have an agenda? It’s making sure you’re not just seeing one side of the story.”