It sounded like an impossible challenge.
How can a museum capture the buzz of a newsroom? The drama of chasing a story. The thunder of the presses. The rush to get a story online, where it will zap around the world at the speed of electrons.
News is about change. It can’t be dug up, labeled, and put on display like the bones of a dinosaur. So when the Newseum began to go up on Pennsylvania Avenue as Washington, D.C.’s newest museum, it was clear that the $450 million building with its seven levels of galleries would have to offer something unique.
It would have to be exciting. It would have to be cutting edge. It would have to show why the news matters.
That’s where the people of AU came in.
The museum that opened in April in the heart of the nation’s capitol took six years of hard-driving work to create. It’s the most interactive museum in the world, a place where exhibits on abstract concepts like the First Amendment come to life for the twenty-first century.
To get a sense of what that means, take a trip to the Newseum. There are several things you can’t miss about the place. One is the First Amendment. You don’t even need to enter the 250,000-square-foot museum to get a visual wallop from the first part of the Bill of Rights, engraved on the museum’s facade and looming over Pennsylvania Avenue.
At six stories tall, it’s as tall as the museum itself. It will dwarf the next president as he motorcades past it in the inaugural parade in 2009. It is visible from the Capitol building.
As statements go, it’s a big one.
There’s another statement, too, that the Newseum is making. It has to do with the way that the core values of journalism—the same values that motivated the Founding Fathers to pen the Bill of Rights—continue to drive journalists as they work in an environment that is evolving dramatically.
But this is a very abstract notion. To see how it plays out at the Newseum, take a look into the interactive newsroom where two boys are at a console with a quiz game called Run for Your Rights. It’s a race pitting two cartoon characters against each other.
Every time players answer a question about their rights correctly, hero Bill O’Rights leaps a hurdle and the villain drops back. One of the boys laughs at the villain’s name and leans over to repeat it to his friend. “Dick Tator!” Then he says, “This is the most fun museum ever.”
The laughter is part of what multimedia producer Jessica Hall, SOC/BA ’00, and Sonya Gavankar, SOC/BA ’99, one of the game’s writers, were striving for when their team created that game and others like it.
“We started with a unique challenge. How do we make the First Amendment fun and engaging? You can sit in there and your eyes glaze over,” says Hall.
The creative team talked for days. Maybe there should be monkeys blocking their eyes, as in “see no evil”? Nah. Too obvious.
Finally, Hall says, “the animator had this idea for a race. Why don’t we have each hurdle be a freedom?” After all, this is a museum dedicated not just to showing the history of news, but how much fun it is to be part of it.
But isn’t there a limit to fun? Ethics, for instance, is not usually a barrel of laughs. “Ethics is another of those subjects that’s very academic,” Hall says.
Yet it’s integral to journalism. Part of what the museum aims to communicate is the real-life, split-second decision-making process of everyday journalism and the way that ethical choices are woven into every aspect of newsroom life.
Hall waves her arm over a disc-shaped table that could have come from Star Trek. It’s not a touch screen; the players’ shadows are what cause questions to pop on the translucent surface.
If the son of a rival paper’s editor was arrested for drunk driving, would you report it? Yes or no? Touch the right answer with your shadow, quickly, and reach for another question. This is the Ethics Table, an interactive game where players compete to be fastest at making ethical choices.
Hall was the game’s team leader. Many of the questions were written by longtime TV news producer Jerry Grossman, SOC/MA ’68, who spent nearly three decades at Washington’s WUSA-TV (Channel 9) before becoming a Newseum producer, working on videos whose subjects range from John F. Kennedy to sports history.
Such intersections are common around the Newseum. “We have a little AU family here,” says administrative assistant Anna Frueh, SOC-SIS/BA ’07, who learned of a job opening during class and now often meets her former SOC professor, W. Joseph Campbell, in the museum’s halls.
Stand in front of a camera as a TV reporter in the Interactive Newsroom. Click on the names of fallen journalists at the interactive memorial wall. Alumni and faculty worked on all of these.
The Newseum aims to immerse visitors in the behind-the-scenes drama of the news business. To make that happen, it needed to find people with a flair for thinking outside the box and skills that range across the media landscape. “I can shoot and edit video, because I did a lot of that at AU,” says Hall. “If I need to write a story for the Web site, I can do that. If I need to produce video, I can do that.”
Technically the Newseum opening was a reopening, since the institution was a popular feature of Rosslyn, Virginia, just across the Potomac, between the time it was launched in 1997 by Gannett founder Al Neuharth’s Freedom Forum and the time it closed to the public in 2002 to prepare its new incarnation.
Hall first worked at the Rosslyn site as an intern clipping newspapers. Other AU alums arrived with fresh degrees, eager to do anything and sometimes steered there by faculty like Campbell, who has been involved in the action for years. His ties go back to the Newseum’s old site, which opened around the time Campbell, a veteran reporter and foreign correspondent, started his career as an AU professor.
Campbell’s touch is all around at the new Newseum. He wrote explanatory labels for historic newspapers, the digital Great Books display, and the magazine collection, and wrote first drafts for the labels of the exhibit that features part of the Berlin Wall.
He conducted research into war correspondents named on the Journalists Memorial, tracked down the word for “news” in some 50 languages for a display called News in 100 Languages, and wrote much of the international database for the digital kiosks in the World News gallery.
Exhibits change at a breakneck pace to keep up with the news. “Museums generally work on things for two years,” says Hall, who has also been a Smithsonian fellow in museum practice. “This place really operates more like a news organization. It’s really a living, breathing, active, hyperactive place.”
And Hall is one of many AU people who are making sure visitors are part of the excitement. “If they’re interacting and engaged, then I’m a happy camper.”