Entry from April 11, 2008

Remember the Millennium Dome? Well, no, come to think of it you probably don’t. But if you want to remind yourself of what this giant tent looked like when it was erected in London’s former docklands near Greenwich, you only have to watch the opening sequence of The World Is Not Enough (1999), the third of Pierce Brosnan’s four cinematic outings as James Bond. The film was part of the hype for this monument to the number 2000 which ended up costing the British taxpayer something over $2 billion before people realized that there was no real point to it and it had to be sold off at a huge loss to a private developer as an “entertainment and sports venue.” Freedom Forum’s “Newseum,” which opens on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington today, only cost about a quarter of that sum (so far), and it was paid for by media moguls like Al Neuharth, Freedom Forum’s founder. But otherwise it looks to me like a similar boondoggle.

What, that is, is the point? During the brief period that the Dome was open to the public as the Dome it was meant, like the Newseum, to be an architectural landmark on the outside and a sort of educational theme park on the inside, designed to teach the brighter sort of children about technology, the environment, multiculturalism etc. through participatory and “interactive” exhibits to make learning fun. But the learning was superficial at best and the fun, if greater than that of some classrooms, was very much less than that of the amusement park or video arcade the Dome unsuccessfully sought to imitate. Having expected 12 million visitors in the triple-zero year, the Dome ended up attracting about a third of that number and was broke before the dawn of the actual millennium in January of 2001. You can’t help wondering if a similar fate will befall the Newseum.

It, too, is full of interactive exhibits. In fact, its publicists claim that it is “the most interactive museum in the world.” All this interacting is also supposed to make learning fun but, like most such exercises, it does so only by taking away most of what makes it learning. The Newseum is not so much a museum of the news as it is of the news headlines, as its punning name suggests and as its shared genetic material with USA Today might almost lead us to expect. That is, to create what Charles Overby, the c.e.o. of Freedom Forum, calls “the wow factor” of all its gadgetry — he says it contains “more screens, big screens and little screens, than any museum in the world” — all but the most superficial aspects of what was pretty superficial to begin with have had to be left out. What remains are only some headlines and some striking images designed more to remind us of how we felt when we heard about history being made than to tell us anything substantive about that history itself. Ezra Pound said that poetry is “news that stays news,” but this is news that takes the more usual course of not staying news. We’ve heard it all before — it wouldn’t be here if we hadn’t — but occasionally we get a nostalgic thrill out of remembering where we were and what we were doing when it was news.

In other words, it’s the perfect baby-boomer museum: all about us. Yet it has been pitched at an audience of young children who won’t get that sort of thrill. The big events that get the most show — World War II, the civil rights movement, the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, Watergate, the Cold War — are their parents’ and grandparents’ memories, not theirs, and I can’t imagine that even the pleasures of all those interactive screens, the many movies, including one in “4-D” — counting the “seat experience” — and the seductive invitation to “Be a TV Reporter!” for a few minutes and see themselves on-screen will be exciting enough to make up for the boredom the kids must feel at being assaulted by so many random events from the past with no other context than that of the media in which they were first reported. This is, among other things, a museum of post-modernism — not of the message but of the messenger, not of the hero but of the story-teller, not of the event itself but of the news of the event and people’s reaction to it.

Mind you, if you’re going to have a Newseum, Washington is the place to have it, since most of the many kids who come here come prepared to be bored by all the monuments to things that happened before they were born. But most of those other monuments are to people and events which still have significance and relevance to their own lives. The Newseum is only a monument to the self-importance of the media. On its Pennsylvania Avenue façade it sports a massive slab of marble on which are carved the words of the First Amendment — which in the media’s view enshrines, as the interior of the big glass box makes clear, their absolute right to say anything they like. Great for them, perhaps, but not so great for the rest of us. Also in their view, it demonstrates the constitutionality of their role as a quasi-official branch of government, charged with holding the powerful, apart from themselves, to account.

Ralph Appelbaum, who collaborated with James Polshek on the design of the building, spoke at a press event for the museum’s opening in terms of the old cliché of journalists as watchdogs. But this is a poor metaphor. Watchdogs are supposed to protect property and vested interests. Journalists these days see their job as undermining and assaulting these things. They are more like attack dogs. By their nature, as the Newseum should make clear, the media are outsiders, belonging to the unrespectable world of the gossip and the guttersnipe. Now they want to join — indeed, to become — the official culture. They want to eat their cake and have it too, celebrating the ethos of the media, which is now pretty much all scandal, all the time, while simultaneously becoming not just respectable but the kind of institution to which monuments are built. It’s squaring the cultural circle. Maybe the kids can be got to believe in it. After all, they share the media’s enthusiasm for freedom without responsibility. But I hope nobody else will.


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