/ 12 April 2008

Newseum blends journalism history, hands-on exhibits

On one floor is a bullet-scarred car used by American journalists in the Balkans. On another is the phone Rupert Murdoch used to make multibillion-dollar media deals. And in between there is one of the biggest remaining chunks of the Berlin Wall and the mangled remains of a communication tower from the 9/11 attack.

It is the world’s newest and most expensive museum, dedicated to journalism, which opened in Washington, DC, on Friday. The occasion was marked with speeches by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts; New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, founder of the business news agency; and Murdoch.

The $450-million museum, clumsily named The Newseum by the founders, is a celebration of journalism in the United States and worldwide, concentrating mainly on the 20th and 21st centuries.

There are sombre walls dedicated to journalists who have lost their lives in pursuit of news and bleak maps showing huge parts of the world without a free press. But there are lots of gimmicks to attract the public, including a 4-D cinema that squirts water and air from holes in a chair, and an ethics competition in which visitors have to resolve dilemmas about what stories and photographs are fit for publication.

Journalists given sneak previews have expressed admiration but with reservations. Howard Kurtz, a US media commentator who writes for the Washington Post, described the six-storey building, a dazzling piece of architecture in its own right, close to Congress, as a first-class addition to the capital’s cultural institutions. But he added: ”It is also, in some respects, an overpriced monument to journalistic self-glorification.”

Those behind the project, themselves former journalists, insist it offers a balanced view of journalism. Cathy Trost, the director of exhibit development, said: ”It is not a shrine to journalism. It is a museum about the great stories and how news has developed over time. It is warts and all.”

She pointed out there is a section dealing with reporters who made up stories and the US papers who prematurely called the result of the election in 2000.

The biggest portion of the museum dedicated to the British press is under a section called ”Sex, crime, scandal”, with front pages from the Sun and Mirror.

The museum was the idea of the Freedom Foundation, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the promotion of free speech. — guardian.co.uk Â