Museum of all the news that's fit to exhibit

May 09, 1994|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,States News Service

Where does old news go when it dies?

In the future, some of it will go just across the Potomac River from Washington, where a foundation that promotes freedom of the press is constructing a repository for its remains.

The "Newseum" is a series of exhibits slated to open in 1997 to recount the past, present and future of journalism. The Arlington, Va.-based Freedom Forum is investing $28.3 million in the project.

"News is basic to human beings," says Mitchell Stephens, chairman of the journalism department at New York University and a consultant to the museum. "One of the things this museum will do is make people aware of the importance that the exchange of news has always had in human life."

A team of researchers is scouring archives and existing collections to help fill three floors of exhibit space at the Freedom Forum's headquarters.

"We hope that it will encourage people to think about yesterday's news," says Chris Wells, vice president of the Freedom Forum and the project's director. "And we hope visitors will wonder about today's news and be provoked by what might happen tomorrow."

For people who write the news, a museum chronicling the chroniclers may sound perfect.

But will the general public be interested?

The answer to that question may lie in the past, says Mr. Stephens, who wrote "A History of the News."

During the 1945 citywide newspaper strike in New York, a sociologist canvassed the town and asked people to describe life without news.

"I am like a fish out of water," said one news junkie who missed his daily fix. "I am lost and nervous and ashamed to admit it."

Another New Yorker sounded even more desperate: "I am suffering seriously. I could not sleep, I missed it so."

Perhaps their angst had more to do with missing news during a pivotal moment in history.

Harry S. Truman was newly ensconced in the White House and World War II still raged abroad.

But Mr. Stephens says the answer goes deeper than that.

"What these people are missing is not so much the particular stories," he says, "but a basic, elemental awareness of what's going on in the world."

Among the old artifacts sought by the museum's collectors: one of the first printed letters from Christopher Columbus describing his landing in the New World; a copy of the 1690 Boston newspaper Publik Occurrences, banned for printing accusations of sexual impropriety in the French court; the Bill of Rights as reprinted in a 1791 newspaper; and the letters of John Peter Zenger, a publisher acquitted of seditious libel in 1735 in a landmark trial for freedom of the press.

Visitors can soak in the history of news gathering by taking a "news history walk" along a time line that will track the evolution of journalism, from stories carved on rocks to electronic media.

Also part of the museum's allure, they say, will be its daily transformations to reflect the latest news. The building will feature a block-long electronic "News Wall" to display international reports via satellite and showcase the front pages of newspapers from every state for that day.

"The museum will change daily," says museum designer Ralph Appelbaum. "That's one of its real differences from any other kind of museum. It is using the technology of the news industry."

Mr. Appelbaum, whose New York-based firm designed Washington's Holocaust Museum, says interactive exhibits will include television studios and newsrooms where people can edit their own newscasts and create their own front pages.

Other exhibits will allow visitors to watch the processing of "raw news" for publication or discuss news issues with journalists and news makers. But the museum won't be entirely reverential. Its exhibits also will probe journalism's seamier underside.

"The first newspaper ever published in the United States, in 1690, includes a human interest story about the guy who hung himself in the cow house because he was so despondent over his wife's death," Mr. Stephens says.

Complaints about today's gory media coverage are in some ways overblown, as the exhibit may show, he says. "There's been blood and guts in the news for as long as there's been news."

Sensationalized accounts -- often sexual in nature -- surface as recurring themes in journalism, according to Mr. Stephens.

"What Geraldo Rivera has done to journalism is not original."

One of the earliest investigative stories in the United States was pursued by the New York Herald, which covered the Robinson-Jewett murder case in 1836. For that story, in which a young prostitute was axed to death in her bed and then set on fire, the paper's editor walked to the brothel and interviewed the madam.

"Circulation of the paper tripled," Mr. Stephens says.

The museum also examines the influence of journalism on public opinion.

Consider the case of Christopher Columbus. After visiting the New World, the explorer posted a letter describing his exploits.

Ten different editions of the letter were reprinted in European newspapers, so that thousands of Spaniards had read of Columbus' adventures before he returned.

A museum can keep these anecdotes alive better than any journalist ever could, Mr. Stephens argues.

"News is historical almost by definition," he says. "For a journalist, news is what happened last week, or maybe during the Bush administration. We need to restore some of the history and see the news with some perspective."

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