Published April 11, 2008
During the brief period that the Millennium Dome was open to the public it was meant, like the Newseum, to be an architectural landmark on the outside and a sort of educational theme park on the inside. Designed to teach bright children about technology, the environment, multiculturalism, etc. through participatory and “interactive” exhibits the Dome adopted the clichéd aspiration to “make learning fun.” But the learning was superficial at best and the fun, if greater than that of some classrooms, was very much less than that of the amusement park or video arcade that the Dome unsuccessfully sought to imitate. Having expected 12 million visitors in the triple-zero year, the Dome in fact attracted only a third of that number, and went broke before the dawn of the actual millennium in January of 2001. One can't help but wonder if a similar fate will befall the Newseum.
Like the Millennium Dome, the Newseum is full of interactive exhibits. Publicists claim that it is “the most interactive museum in the world.” All this interacting is supposed to make learning fun, but like most such exercises it does so only by taking away most of what makes it learning. The Newseum is not so much a museum of the news as it is of the news headlines, as its punning name suggests. That is, to create what Charles Overby, the CEO of Freedom Forum, calls “the wow factor” of all its gadgetry — he says it contains “more screens, big screens and little screens, than any museum in the world” — all but the most superficial aspects of what was pretty superficial to begin with have had to be left out. What remains are only some headlines and some striking images designed more to remind us of how we felt when we heard about history being made than to tell us anything substantive about that history itself. Ezra Pound said that poetry is “news that stays news,” but this is news that takes the more usual course of not staying news. We've heard it all before — it wouldn't be here if we hadn't — but occasionally we get a nostalgic thrill out of remembering where we were and what we were doing when it was news.
In other words, it's the perfect baby-boomer museum: all about us. Yet it has been pitched at an audience of young children for whom the highlighted events — World War II, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, Watergate, the Cold War — have no sentimental value. The interactive screens, the many movies, including one in “4-D” — counting the “seat experience” — and the opportunity to view themselves on-screen seem hardly exciting enough to make up for the boredom of being assaulted by so many random events from the past, with no other context than that of the media in which they were first reported. Among other things, this is a museum of post-modernism — not of the message but of the messenger, not of the hero but of the story-teller, not of the event itself but of the news of the event and people's reaction to it.
Mind you, Washington certainly prepares children for the sometimes daunting task of visiting monument after monument. But while other monuments honor ever-relevant historical persons and events, the Newseum is only a monument to the self-importance of the media. On its Pennsylvania Avenue façade it sports a massive slab of marble on which are carved the words of the First Amendment — enshrining the media's perception of its absolute right to say anything. In their view, it demonstrates the constitutionality of their role as a quasi-official branch of government, charged with holding the powerful, apart from themselves, to account.
Ralph Appelbaum, who collaborated with James Polshek on the design of the building, spoke at a press event for the museum's opening in terms of the old cliché of journalists as watchdogs. But this is a poor metaphor. Watchdogs are supposed to protect property and vested interests. Journalists these days see their job as undermining and assaulting these things. They are more like attack dogs. By their nature, as the Newseum should make clear, the media are outsiders, belonging to the unrespectable world of the gossip and the guttersnipe. Now they want to join — indeed, to become — the official culture. They want to celebrate the ethos of the media, which is now pretty much all scandal, all the time, while simultaneously becoming respectable — the kind of institution to which monuments are built. It's squaring the cultural circle. Perhaps by targeting children, the media has a shot at success – after all, children share the media's enthusiasm for freedom without responsibility. Hopefully, nobody else will.