Two points about Washington, DC: the best building on the Mall is the Canadian Embassy, and the best thing about the Newseum is its name. The Newseum and the Canadian Embassy are side-by-side neighbors on Pennsylvania Avenue. Canadians manage to poke fun at their American hosts with a building that is fully modern, bold and uplifting with a nod towards a rampant classicism of nearly all the other mall buildings: a small pseudo-Roman rotunda. They show that while not an empire, they can do the colonnades with the best of them. It’s not unlike what our younger siblings do as soon as they realize we stopped being cool.
The Newseum building is much newer. Despite of all the glass and empty spaces it never ceases to confuse. Displays that you want to check out somehow always end up being on the other end and you can never get anywhere without retracing your steps. I am pretty sure there must be a hidden message here. In any case putting things in museum is a dangerous proposition. While it dignifies and preserves collected artifacts, it also suggests that they belong to a bygone era. The museum of the news as the crafty neologism has it, acquires a more auto-ironic message with each newspaper that goes out of print.
The Newseum is a pinnacle of navel gazing by the self obsessed American media. Apparently if it’s not reported it hasn’t happened. And it seems that there is an entire category of things that only happen because they are reported. As a regular listener to On The Media podcast I should not complain. Still the role of the press is taken in the Newseum to the new extreme. It’s really hard not to be responsive to the idea. The Newseum proudly displays its first amendment credentials literally written in stone on the building facade. There is not an exhibition inside with which you would not agree. Among the permanent collections we have Berlin Wall history, 9/11 memorabilia, a humongous Elvis theatre.
Current exhibitions feature sport photography, photo Pulitzer prizes and Katrina reporting. All this is topped with a 4-D theatre ride. Yup - not a typo. 3-D is supposedly not enough to keep audience interested. But Newseum’s 4-D is a let down for kids of all ages who have seen Avatar. Seats that shake slightly or a dagger aiming at your hart utterly fail to impress. Once the movie ends one of the kids behind me asks That’s it? loud enough that the staff member feels obliged to confirm that this really is It whatever It was supposed to be.
It’s a good commentary on this place. It never quite lives to the heightened expectations of the free - as in freedom - press celebrating itself as a cornerstone of democracy. Despite all the interesting and educational exibits it ends up joining the chorus of whines about the decline of the free press. As if the current state of affairs with big media corporations owning multiple publications was particularly conducive to unfettered practice of journalism. In any case the media people complaining that no-one is willing to pay for quality reporting seem to forget that most readers were purchasing newspapers for criminal beat and celebrity gossip. While I appreciate good writing I am not so sure I am prepared to pay for someone to integrate it into a form of a magazine or a newspaper. Laments of journalists upset that newspapers are disappearing in the age of electronic media are similar to grumbles of steam locomotive operators when automobiles took over. The technology can be delayed, but not reverted.
Another recent addition to the National Mall - the World War II Memorial - is criminally boring and uninspiring. 50 or so columns with wraths surrounding a fountain, which happened to be switched off for the season. Looks like ruins of a defunct colosseum not as a memento of a bloody complicated conflict and the tribute to the greatest generation. There is certainly pathos, but no passion, no history, no tragedy here. Few visitors milling about seem to be left cold and uninterested in the way silent crowds at the open wound of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial never are.
We time our walk along the mall so that we get to the Lincoln Memorial after dark. This is my favorite place in Washington. Reading the Gettysburg Address here never gets old. I wish we could get back to the era of political speeches short enough and meaningful enough so that they can be safely engraved. Lincoln of course still looks the same, despite being photographed with ever-improving digital cameras. He glances calmly towards the government of the people, by the people, for the people running its dirty business on the opposite side of the mall. Somehow it manages to make one more certain that America is going to survive the demise of the printed media.