$450 Million Newseum to (Finally) Open on Friday

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By: Brett Zongker

A mangled and twisted metal tower that once broadcast radio and television signals to New York City from the top of the World Trade Center has a new home at the Newseum, Washington’s monument to press freedom and other protections of the First Amendment.

The tower is just one striking artifact inside the high-tech journalism museum, which also includes large sections of the Berlin Wall, archival video and newspapers dating back nearly 500 years, and thousands of other objects to wow news junkies.

The Newseum opens Friday in a $450 million ultramodern glass building on Pennsylvania Avenue ? prominently seated on the last available site between the Capitol and the White House. The opening caps seven years of planning and construction after the original and much smaller Newseum closed in Arlington, Va., in 2002.

Museum officials hope the prime location in Washington will help lure more tourists from the National Mall.

“We think (people) come here to see their democracy in action,” Newseum chief executive Charles Overby said. “And we believe that the press belongs in that pilgrimage, that the press has a central place in our country’s democracy.”

The noble mission to educate (and entertain) visitors about the free press won’t be free, however.

The museum, with a $20 admission fee for adults, will be among the most expensive attractions in Washington, where 20 million annual visitors have become accustomed to free admission at the nearby Smithsonian Institution museums. The popular International Spy Museum in downtown Washington charges $18 for adults; only the Madame Tussauds wax museum charges a higher fee at $21.15 for adults.

But Overby says that what tourists will get is something well worth their dollars.

The nonprofit museum, funded primarily by the nonpartisan Freedom Forum, also will be opening during economic doldrums. Even during a downturn, however, the officials say they believe they can draw several hundred thousand visitors a year.

The creators of the Newseum are touting it as an interactive museum that’s “somewhere between the Smithsonian and Disney World,” Overby said.

One attraction ? a 4-D film with gusts of air and squirts of water ? highlights some of the heroes from news history, with Edward R. Murrow’s broadcasts from London during World War II and Nellie Bly’s undercover reports to expose conditions in an insane asylum in 1887. Other exhibits allow visitors to decide on the most important stories for the front page of a newspaper or tape a TV interview in front of a White House backdrop.

Exhibits will evolve with news of the day.

Daily newspapers from every state will be displayed each day along Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the museum and on the building’s rooftop terrace. Headlines from The Associated Press scroll constantly on two tickers in the atrium, along with a huge video screen with Newseum films or breaking news from around the world.

The museum will hold special events for big news events, such as the U.S. visit by Pope Benedict XVI next week, the Beijing Olympics and the political conventions in the fall, said Cathy Trost, director of exhibit development.

“It’s absolutely a museum of news, but it’s a history museum as well,” she said. “The artifacts tell those stories in dramatic ways.”

The News History Gallery is the largest section with hundreds of items, including the door the Watergate burglars rigged to break into the Democratic National Committee headquarters. A gallery on the Internet, radio and TV includes Murrow’s war correspondent uniform and the cell phone used by a Virginia Tech student to capture video during the 2007 on-campus shootings.

Celebrity TV news anchors such as Katie Couric, Charlie Gibson, Diane Sawyer and Brian Williams are featured as narrators and subjects of various programs. And LL Cool J, Martin Sheen and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor help explain the First Amendment in a gallery film.

Corporate media sponsors and foundations provided $122 million for the Newseum. Each major donor has a touch screen computer at the entrances of their namesake galleries, with video messages from figures such as New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Fox News anchor Shepard Smith.

Despite those ties, Overby said the Newseum is staffed by journalists and museum professionals, and maintains control of all its content. The museum also takes note of some of its media sponsors’ struggles amid accusations of bias and plagiarism.

By the numbers, the Newseum is huge: 15 theaters, 14 major galleries, two TV studios and three elevators each the size of a small school bus, all within seven levels and 250,000 square feet. The exhibit route is a mile-and-a-half long, and the upper levels of the building offer some of the best views of the Capitol and iconic monuments and museums on the National Mall.

The museum’s architecture includes three distinct layers visible outside the building, symbolizing sections of a newspaper. A 74-foot marble engraving of the First Amendment hangs on the building’s facade.

But Overby said they didn’t set out to build a museum to commemorate newspapers or struggles in the news industry. Curators don’t touch the economics of the news business, he said, except to acknowledge the delivery of news is changing with falling newspaper circulation and rising demand for video online.

Instead, the focus is on “the stories of your life.”

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