The Best Exhibits to See Before The Newseum Permanently Closes in DC
Before it’s too late, make a trip to the Newseum to get inspired yourself.
This past spring, the Newseum in Washington DC -- an institution dedicated to journalism and freedom of expression -- unveiled an exhibit chronicling the modern LGBTQ rights movement in the United States. A couple of men, who protested at Stonewall Inn 50 years ago, perused the exhibit and noticed a young kid on a field trip that saw an artifact, turned on his heels, and grabbed his classmates to come see.
“The two older men were overcome,” explains Sonya Gavankar, Newseum’s director of PR. “This is what they fought for, so young people could be impassioned about these issues and have these conversations.”
Emotional stories like this stick out to Gavankar, who has been with the museum and its parent organization, The Freedom Forum Institute, for 20 years. And it’s these moments that will be hard to replicate when the Newseum permanently closes its doors due to “financial losses” on December 31, 2019. The building is being sold to Johns Hopkins University, which will use it for graduate school programs. Freedom Forum’s work hosting panel discussions, industry events, and diversity programs will move up the street to 300 New Jersey Avenue.
“At this time, having a brick-and-mortar is too costly,” says Gavankar, standing on the terrace of the Pennsylvania Avenue building that opened in 2008. “When we had the idea to open this, it was pre-recession. It was a different economy. But I would encourage people to not look at the closing as some sort of sign of the death of journalism. The organizations who do the best work, both traditional journalists and ones like ours, have to constantly evolve.”
A majority of the Newseum’s exhibits -- including part of the Berlin Wall, the antenna mast from the World Trade Center’s North Tower, and a Bell news helicopter -- will be transported to an archives facility in Maryland. Anything on loan will get returned to the lender, and a few temporary exhibits will travel onto other cities.
“Our curators are unfazed about moving some of the bigger objects, which is why they have the jobs they do,” says Gavankar, who estimates the move will take about six months. “But our collection and educational resources will stay available online. Though we currently have about 850,000 visitors a year, we can reach more using these artifacts in different ways.”
Still, to be in the same room as a Civil Rights lunch counter or the Unabomber’s cabin is a surreal experience. This 643,000-square-foot building with sprawling views of the Capitol Building was visited several times by former President Barack Obama, and has played host to many others including comedian Jon Stewart, the Parkland shooting survivors, and nearly half-a-million school kids a year.
“I want people to leave here thinking of the first amendment as a muscle they can exercise,” Gavankar says. “If they are touched by investigative journalism, they should invest in their local news outlet. If they are inspired by the Civil Rights movement, they should champion a cause important to them. A building is a building, but the personal work can go on.”
Before it’s too late, make a trip to the Newseum to get inspired yourself. Be warned that it’s a huge place, so there’s a two-day ticket for a reason. But don’t leave the building without checking out these memorable exhibits, artifacts, and experiences.
On display since March, this traveling exhibit explores the gay rights movement in the US and marks the 50th anniversary of the police raid on Stonewall Inn. Powerful artifacts bring to light historical moments like the 1978 assassination of Harvey Milk, the AIDS crisis, Rep. Barney Frank’s public coming out, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and the fight for marriage equality. This exhibit will tour nationally after its run at the Newseum, including stops in Memphis and Seattle, through 2022.
As the largest permanent exhibit in the Newseum, this gallery covers news as far back as 1492. There are nearly 400 historic newspaper front pages, cases that explore war reporting and sensationalism, and a 25-seat theater for video productions. “This is where my favorite artifact is, the Watergate break-in door,” Gavankar says. “Funnily enough, after the police investigation, this was just sitting in the Watergate garage manager’s home basement for decades. He reached out to us when we opened and asked if we’d like it. Of course, we said yes.”
This exhibit profiles student leaders in the 1960s Civil Rights movement. The centerpiece is a section of the original F.W. Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, where four African-American college students launched the revolutionary sit-in movement. Also on view are several African-American newspaper reproductions and a bronze casting of the Birmingham, Alabama jail cell door that confined Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963.
It’s impossible to view the mangled, 360-foot antenna mast from the World Trade Center’s North Tower without getting emotional. Thankfully, the museum provides tissue boxes at each of the gallery’s four corners. In addition, newspaper front pages from September 12, 2001 line the walls, there is a film of first-person accounts from reporters who covered 9/11, and a glass case includes a tribute to photojournalist William Biggart, who died covering the story. “This is easily one of the most moving galleries for people,” Gavankar says. “And one that inspires a lot of ‘where were you when’ conversations.”
A striking visual, this 36-foot-wide map is updated annually and provides a color-coded look at the different levels of press freedoms around the world. Artifacts include James Foley’s notebook from the Libya Civil War and a helmet Stephen Sotloff wore while covering Syria. There’s also a two-story glass memorial with the names of 2,344 reporters, editors, photographers, and broadcasters who lost their lives reporting the news -- including the recent victims of the Capital Gazette shooting. “These things happen in our own backyards,” Gavankar says. “We frequently find flowers left here.”
An exhibit that has constantly evolved since the Newseum’s inception (before the iPad was even released), this gallery covers a vast timeline of electronic media using more than 70 radio and TV news clips. Think everything from the coverage of the Hindenburg explosion to the cell phone that captured the Virginia Tech shooting and contrasting former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats to President Donald Trump’s tweets. You can also get a good view of the 40-by-22-foot LED BARCO screen that broadcasts breaking news like impeachment hearings and inaugurations. “Sometimes, people don’t know whether to look at the screen or out the window when a motorcade goes by,” Gavankar jokes.
One of the Newseum’s newest exhibits that debuted this past June explores the intersection between humor and the news. The focal point is Jon Stewart’s desk from The Daily Show, and various artifacts tell the story of how comedians became trusted news sources for the American public. Also on display are props from Saturday Night Live, the suit Trevor Noah wore on his first show in 2015, and a Newseum-produced film that shows behind the scenes of the Comedy Central show.
A mainstay of the Newseum since its inception, this reverent and dimly lit gallery features every Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph since 1942. Not only that but interactive exhibits include more than 1,000 images and 15 hours of video and audio interviews with the prize-winning photographers telling the stories behind the photos. Iconic images include the Iwo Jima flag planting by Joe Rosenthal that took home the 1945 prize, the historic capture of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, and the breaking news photography from four-time winner Carol Guzy. Also on display is the camera that Nick Ut used to shoot the heartbreaking image of “Napalm girl” during the Vietnam War. “Ever year, they win the award in New York City and come down to us do the interviews the next day,” Gavankar says. “Understandably, recounting these experiences is always intense.”
In partnership with the FBI, this exhibit includes rare artifacts on loan from the Bureau. Get up close and personal with the Unabomber’s cabin, the book that documented the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” fugitives, artifacts from the DC sniper investigation, the car that the 9/11 hijackers left at Dulles Airport, and running shoes worn during the Boston Marathon bombing. “There has always been a balance between journalists pushing for information and lawmakers withholding it,” Gavankar explains. “This really tells that story.”
The museum was essentially built around this infamous piece of concrete. On the Newseum’s bottom floor rises 12-foot-high sections of the original Berlin Wall -- the largest outside of Germany -- and a three-story East German guard tower that stood near Checkpoint Charlie is also on display. The west side, full of colorful graffiti, stands in contrast to the vacant and blank east side of the wall. “For kids that come through, the Cold War is ancient history to them, so something this visual and tactile really sets the tone,” Gavankar says. “This is when you see plenty of aha moments.”
Sign up here for our daily DC email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.