When the video ends, there are sniffles, a few clearings of throats, and a collective pause.
The claustrophobic room — as many as 25 people packed into the small space — empties at a crawl. When the audience emerges into the light of the fourth floor, tears are wiped and whispered chatter begins.
Many powerful exhibits are housed within the walls of Washington’s Newseum, a museum spotlighting the history of print and broadcast news, but it is the reaction and experience of its patrons that might be the most striking.
With a contemporary exterior, stairway and balcony-heavy design and clean layout, the Newseum bucks the cliché imagery of a brick-and-mortar educational field trip. The experience has more in common with visiting the headquarters of Google or Apple than with how earlier generations depicted or experienced a museum housing historical artifacts, like, say, dinosaur bones displays.
A van of students from two NCC journalism classes took in a more state-of-the-art museum experience April 23, departing early for what felt more “modern” than simple construction aesthetics.
Given that the museum celebrates the history of news in print, broadcast television and even new media — there is an Internet-specific exhibit — it is appropriate that the curators found a way to mesh and mold that history into an overwhelming audio-visual experience.
Do not be mistaken, history is on display. Radio broadcasting is recognized. Pulitzer Prize-winning photography, those without filters, which were hand-developed, is represented. All three of television’s once dominant broadcast networks have sponsored sections. Murrow. Check. Cronkite. Check. Even full videos of dozens of News Corp. newsreels sit on display screens ready for viewing at the touch of a screen.
The most striking take-away from a visit to the Newseum is not the decades-old history of black and white footage, but the amount of space dedicated to history that still feels so contemporary it seems almost odd calling it history to begin with. And this in and of itself embodies a cultural change, one propelled by cable TV, Internet and cellular phones. A change to the immediate.
On almost every floor are interactive digital devices. NBC News sponsors an “interactive newsroom,” and in front of those stand-up sets where anyone can attempt a news broadcast, a bay of touch-screens immerse visitors in video games about news history.
The Edward R. Murrow section sits next to the aforementioned digital news section, bridging not only generations, but seamlessly connecting them. There are actual newspaper headlines, video screens playing famous or infamous news moments, and artifacts from the moments being exhibited as history. The Challenger tragedy plays before giving way to the O.J. Simpson car chase, and that gives way to the fall of the Berlin Wall. A display in the basement concourse contains full pieces of the Wall itself.
All six levels, seven counting the concourse, feature some sort of post-1985 news moment, most if not all broadcast live around the world on TV. But the most dramatic, emotional and heavily trafficked on the day of our visit was the Sept. 11 exhibit. The centerpiece is a monolithic, twisted piece of steel that juts up from the ground and is held in place by strings. That white metal once sat atop one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. It was the antenna for television station broadcasts in New York City, and was once the highest point in the city that never sleeps. Today it rests on the fourth floor of the Newseum, a visual spectacle from floor to ceiling.
What isn’t as noticeable or perhaps as stunning is the small “theatre” just behind this spectacle, with only two long benches for seating. In this theater is a rectangular room no more than 10 yards deep, with a short documentary playing on a loop. The video presents the story of local New York reporters and cameramen chronologically going through their experience on that fateful day. It features rarely scene footage and moments that were never broadcast. It is history native to this century, and yet history all the same.
Coming out of this makeshift theater, emerging from the sniffles and throat clearings, I see the faces of those drying their eyes. These are the faces of uniformed high school students, young enough not to remember a world before cellphones and 24-hour news. In some cases, young enough that they may have not been born yet on that tragic morning in 2001.
Those faces show the import of news. Of moving images. Of typed words. Of detailed audio reports.
News is not just immediate. News is history the moment it is reported.