Bogart

A museum that already beat me to the title pun – Newseum!

In Museums on May 25, 2011 at 6:09 pm

After the disappointment of the building museum, I decided to hit up the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall, so off I wandered to Pennsylvania Avenue. Upon arriving, I was told I couldn’t cross the road for at least 15 minutes, to my right, to my left, or infront of me, pretty much trapping me on the one block.

This was because of a motorcade leaving the Capitol – Mr O is in London, so it’s either V-POTUS or its President Netenyahu of Israel, who spoke on Tuesday at the Capitol. Whipped out the Camera and took a photo, and thanks to the amazingness of digital zoom technology, I think it was Bennyboy. Unless Joe Biden likes to mix it up with an Israeli flag on his car as well. So yay! One photo of a presidential motorcade! Not the one I was expecting, but still.

Anyhoo – this still leaves me with the problem of being stuck on a block for 15 minutes. As it happened, it’s the block that has the Newseum on it, which is the highest-rated attraction in DC according to Tripadvisor and several other sources. The problem, however, is that it is not free. Spoiled by SMithsonia and the National Park Service, I am reluctant to pay for culture in this city, but the Newseum makes a compelling case. Also, being trapped on that precise block seemed to be a sign from the museum gods. So in we go!

I balked at the price. It was $23 with tax included, which is the most I’ve ever paid to go into a museum, I think (and if I’m honest, the most I’m ever likely to pay). That’s a week’s food budget for interns living in poverty in DC! This immediately put me in a bad mood – I was expecting to pay $10-15. Ouchie.

There was a tour starting minutes after I got in, and, mindful of previous mistakes with highlights tours, I decided to give it five minutes to impress me before dropping out. Ed Barron was our guide, a volunteer, and it turned out he only needed  2 minutes to sell me on this place. I wholeheartedly recommend the tour – it lasts an hour and takes in all the big sites of the museum – which I knew NOTHING about. I hadn’t read or researched anything about the Newseum because I hadn’t planned to go, so it was all a surprise. The tour takes you to the basement to see a portion of the Berlin Wall and a watchtower from Checkpoint Charlie.

It’s so nice sometimes to get the facts from a human rather than from an information panel. As I learned all too well at the National Museum of the American Indian, who your tourguide is counts for an awful lot, so I can’t vouch for everyone at the Newseum, but if Ed is anything to go by, then they are a well-trained crew.

I’m also a sucker for a guide who cares, because a guide who doesn’t will almost certainly ruin your tour. Ed, who has worked at the Newseum since it opened three years ago (and who I believe is an ex-hack himself)  has had a long time to get used to the exhibits spoke with a genuine enthusiasm for the exhibits. At one point he was choking back tears talking about journalists who have died on duty, and as a result, so were we all. It added a great personal touch to a big new building.

I don’t want to show pictures or take you through everything in here, because I hope you’ll come along yourselves one day. I do want to mention some of the highlights though – there are working studios (being used by Al Jazeera on the day we were there, and regularly used for US TV), a whole-floor exhibition on the National Tragedy/Disgrace of New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, and a great chance to have a go at performing a piece to camera yourself – autocue and everything!  Special mention must go to the terrace on the 6th floor (go up in the glass elevators from the basement to the 6th – the only floors they stop at – it’s brilliant). The terrace has a clear view up and down Pennsylvania Avenue, and is the best view of the Capitol Building I’ve seen so far (screw you, Post office Tower!).

Now – the really important stuff – visitor services! The café was pretty great – didn’t get chance to try a main meal as it was late in the day, but it’s actually catered by multi-Michelin-starred chef Wolfgang Puck. I had a mini-cupcake, and can confirm it was good (Not quite Queenies, mind you). Also, there are lots of fun and funny gifts to buy in the Gift Shop, which is enormous (even by DC standards – two floors!). Lots of jokey political stuff, local history, and news/journalism related trinkets, textbooks and more. This museum is really, really well equipped for tourists.

A couple of minor issues – the museum is VERY America-centric, and there’s a real lack of foreign press representation. Much of the stuff about famous US journalists was lost on me. Nothing about Denmark and the infamous cartoons of Mohammed, nothing on the UK’s current battle of Super Injunctions vs. Freedom of the Press, nothing on international censorship except a giant wall map (which is absolutely up to date, mind – the colours of Israel and Mexico have changed just this week). With a museum that’s coping really well with the fast-paced delivery of news in this world, it’s a real shame that it’s exclusively about America. Also, the school trips were pretty unbearable. The interactive are great, but they do seem to bring out the worst in teenagers. But I’m afraid there’s very little avoiding that in a city like this.

I’m quite open about being skinflinty enough to make Ebeneezer Scrooge look like a Footballer’s Wife in Harrods, and I HATE paying for museums. I understand all the arguments and reasons behind it, but I always feel so utterly ripped off by it. $23 was a lot more than I was expecting to pay, and were it not for President Netenyahu, I doubt I would have paid it. That said, for the first time ever, I felt this was worth the admission charge – it is the best example of a new museum I have ever been in, and one of the best I’ve experienced in America, historic houses included. Tickets are valid for two consecutive days, and you had better believe I’m going back this afternoon. If for no other reason than to see my favourite ever First Dog, Calvin Coolidge’s Prudence Prim:

If you’re looking to build a new museum, the National Museum of the American  Indian is the worst-case scenario you want to avoid. Newseum is its polar opposite – it is the impossible standard for which every new museum should be aiming for. Even for skinflints, it really is worth the 23 bucks.

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  1. […] immediately – Woodrow Wilson house is not free. It cost me $10 to get in! $10!! Now, that’s no Newseum kind of cover charge, but this is a pretty small (relatively speaking – wait ‘til you hear […]

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