WASHINGTON -- Imagine opening a museum in Philadelphia in 1776 extolling the glories of colonial rule, or in Hollywood in 2007 celebrating the promise of the VHS tape.
Charles Overby, CEO of Washington's high-gloss, high-profile Newseum, a $450 million gamble that tourists will flock to a museum dedicated to the news and how it's gathered, understands the analogy. The news media are in a serious state of flux, as newspapers, radio and TV news operations are struggling to keep presses running and ratings steady. Maybe this isn't the best time to bank on the news as a potential lure for the tourist dollar.
Overby, however, scoffs at such concerns. The news-media landscape may be turning into a confused mess, but the news itself is doing just fine. His new six-floor museum, scheduled to open tomorrow on the block of Pennsylvania Avenue between Fifth and Sixth streets Northwest, chronicles a culture that is alive, well and thriving.
"There's a greater depth to the news than ever before," says Overby, standing in the museum's third-floor gallery of the day's front pages from around the world. "It's the delivery system that is in turmoil."
The subject had come up earlier, during a news conference attended by more than 200 journalists anxious to get out and see how often their particular news operation shows up among the Newseum's 3,800 images on display. Overby was just as optimistic. "It's not a newspaperseum or a faltering-mediaseum," he said. "It's about news."
That it is, from its entranceway off Pennsylvania Avenue, dominated by a 74-foot-tall, 50-ton slab of marble inscribed with the words of the First Amendment, to its first-floor men's room walls, where tiles are decorated with some of the more humorous flubs that have made it into the nation's news pages (including this headline from the April 4, 2000, Sun: "Bill to halt illness passes").
The Pennsylvania Avenue building is the successor to the Newseum's original quarters in Arlington, Va. That facility, though off the beaten path for most Washington tourists, drew some 2.25 million visitors from its opening in 1997 to its closing March 3, 2002. Museum officials hope to draw even more visitors at the new location, midway between the U.S. Capitol and the White House. In the days leading up to tomorrow's official opening, some 30,000 people have already toured the building.
As befits Overby's differentiation between the news and the news media, many of the Newseum's most prominent exhibits are as historical as they are journalistic. In a room near the building's eastern edge looms a 32-foot-long-by-12-foot-high section of the Berlin Wall, eight 3-ton blocks of granite that once separated a German city into two sections - one where people and ideas could flow freely, and the other where they could not.
And in another room just a short walk away rests a portion of the TV antenna that once sat atop the World Trade Center's north tower, a stark, gnarled reminder of how events in the news can still dominate our lives and our attention.
Scattered throughout the building's six floors are reminders, as well, of how media are evolving in the 21st century. Exhibits explain how bloggers have become key disseminators of the news, how media companies are becoming more and more dependent on average citizens to serve as their eyes and ears and how microchips and gigabytes have replaced pen and paper as the reporter's best friend.
Among the 6,241 artifacts in the Newseum's collection (about 1,000 of which are on display) are such emerging-media touchstones as the cell phone used by Virginia Tech student Jamal Albarghouti to capture audio recordings and video images of last year's campus shooting, which he then e-mailed to CNN; a 2005 White House press pass issued to blogger Garrett M. Graff of FishbowlDC, the first blogger to gain such access; and a device called a Kindle, a roughly 5x7 combination keyboard and video screen that wirelessly downloads books, blogs, newspapers and magazines.
Not that traditional sources of news are ignored; far from it. On the fifth floor, the News History Gallery houses 368 historic newspapers and magazines, reporting on everything from the 1546 death of Martin Luther to the Dec. 27, 2007, assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The pages are in display cases stacked three deep along the gallery's inner wall, and visitors are welcome to pull out the display-case drawers and gaze at (though, of course, not touch) history as it was reported at the time it was being made.
There are also testimonies to the dangers faced by the media, in a world where digging for the facts is not always welcome. A 1976 Datsun 210, a gaping hole where its driver's seat should be, is the centerpiece of a memorial to Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles. He was killed in 1976 while pursuing a story on corruption in state government; six sticks of dynamite exploded shortly after he put his keys in the ignition. What is left of the car sat on a police impound lot for 26 years before going on display at the Newseum.
The new museum has its frivolous side as well - one officials hope will attract and entertain youngsters. A second-floor interactive newsroom includes all manner of hands-on displays. Visitors can make like a TV reporter on location (a monitor showed three young girls "reporting" on what Supreme Court justices are wearing). Computer screens display programs that allow budding journalists to interview witnesses to an incident involving freed animals at the local carnival - and maybe even pin down the guilty party.
Fifteen theaters are scattered throughout the Newseum, showing everything from interviews with Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers to a "4-D" film. The latter uses a combination of 3-D technology, moving seats and carefully placed bursts of cold air to make audience members feel as though they're covering the American Revolution with colonial journalist Isaiah Thomas or going undercover in a New York insane asylum with pioneering 19th-century investigative journalist Nellie Bly.
"It was really awesome, like nothing I'd ever experienced before," 13--year-old Jessie Riddler, a middle-schooler from Dublin, Calif., said after watching the film. Added classmate Ezgi Wood, 14, "It was pretty intense. It took it to the max."
That's the sort of enthusiasm Overby hopes to keep hearing. "If I had the kids with me, I'd take them to the interactive Newseum," he says, foreseeing a problem doubtless to be faced by many a visiting family. "Then, while they were doing that, I'd go to the history display."
555 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., Washington
9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's)
$20 for adults 13-64; $18 for seniors 65 and older; $13 for youths 7-12; free for children 6 and younger
www.newseum.org or 888-639-7386