March 18, 2008

The new "Newseum" in Washington, DC

On a recent visit to DC to make a presentation at the Building Museum conference I was fortunate enough to get a pre-opening tour of the the brand new Newseum, a museum of news sponsored by the Freedom Forum. The museum's mission is to help people to understand the role of freedom of the press in building and sustaining a democracy, hence its location in the heart of Washington, DC on Pennsylvania Avenue across from the National Archives and in view of the Capitol.

The museum's architect is the Polshek Partnershp with exhibit design by Ralph Applebaum. Polshek is perhaps best known for his work on the Rose Center at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC. Applebaum is best known for the Holocaust Museum in DC. The project budget is officially $350 million with and additional $100 million for property acquisition. (This seems low for a building of 650,000 square feet with 250,000 square feet of exhibits.)

As befits its location, the building is in many ways a monument to the first amendment--a six-story stone panel with the first amendment engraved in it dominates the facade.  The panel both announces the museum's mission and gives a solidity and permanence to the building that is appropriate for its generally stodgy setting. The rest of the building is lighter and unabashedly modern --lots of steel and glass--and fits comfortably into its context, with massing similar to the Canadian Embassy which is next door.

In its seven stories, the museum has what have become the usual museum tropes: a soaring atrium; the requisite cafe, store, and upscale restaurant; iconic objects; multiple party spaces (four different events can take place at once); and lots and lots of media. It also has a two story conference center--apparently sorely needed in downtown DC, plus a significant apartment tower at the rear. 

I liked a lot of things about it:
  • The several hundred daily newspapers from around the world that are updated daily.
  • The consistency of the message--they hammer you with the first amendment, and we need that.
  • The atrium space that works to both impress and to orient. As you move through the building, it is always clear where you are.
  • The three oversized glass elevators designed to take 50 visitors at a time to the top floor where the exhibits start--and which are popular as bars when they have big parties.
  • The huge video screen that dominates the atrium--more impressive the nearby helicopter--and that works.
  • The idea that they are continually producing all their own media in house--although I think the daily papers are richer and more compelling.
In an hour and a half tour, we couldn't see much of the exhibits, but they looked promising. Much of the interpretation will take place in the 15 theater spaces scattered throughout the exhibits. It will be interesting to see how this all works with the anticipated million visitors a year.

There were a number of things that I wasn't sure about (the 4D theater, some of the artifacts, some of the messages), but I want to see how these play out after opening before offering any opinions.

The Newseum opens April 11th and will have an admission fee of $20 for adults.

(Thanks to Mark Hayward for the photos.)

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