Newseum hailed free press, but got beaten by free museums

Newseum hailed free press, but got beaten by free museums

WASHINGTON — In 2008, the Newseum — a private museum dedicated to exploring modern history as told through the eyes of journalists — opened on prime Washington real estate.

Sitting almost equidistant between the White House and the Capitol on Pennsylvania Avenue, the glass-walled building became instantly recognizable for its multi-story exterior rendition of the First Amendment.

Eleven years later that experiment is coming to an end. After years of financial difficulties, the Newseum will close its doors Tuesday.

“We’re proud of how we did our storytelling,” said Sonya Gavankar, the outgoing director of public relations. “We changed the model of how museums did their work.”

The building was sold for $372.5 million to Johns Hopkins University, which intends to consolidate its scattered Washington-based graduate studies programs under one roof.

Gavankar attributed the failure to a “mosaic of factors” but one of them was certainly unfortunate timing. The opening coincided with the 2008 economic recession, which hit newspapers particularly hard and caused mass layoffs and closures across the industry.

She also acknowledged that the Newseum’s status as a for-pay private institution was a harder sell in a city full of free museums. A Newseum ticket costs $25 for adults, and the building is right across the street from the National Gallery of Art and within blocks of multiple Smithsonian museums.

“Competing with free institutions in Washington was difficult,” Gavankar said.

Another problem, organizers said, is that the Newseum struggled to attract local residents, instead depending on a steady diet of tourists and local school groups. Actual Washington-area residents, who do frequent the Smithsonian and elsewhere, mostly came on school trips and rarely returned as adults.

Claire Myers fits that profile. The D.C. resident recalls coming to the Newseum in high school in a senior-year class trip. She only returned in late December for a final visit because she heard it was closing at the end of the year.

“I do think part of the reason was because it’s a paid museum,” she said. “Why go out of my way to do this when I could just go to any other free museum?”

The $25 price tag, Myers said, creates a pressure to set aside the whole day and take in every exhibit, whereas at one of the free Smithsonian museums, she knows she can come back another time to catch whatever she missed. But Myers said she was deeply impressed by the exhibits, particularly the Newseum’s signature gallery of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs.

“I do wish it wasn’t going away,” she said.

The museum’s focus evolved over the years, showcasing not just journalism and historic events, but all manner of free speech and civil rights issues and some whimsical quirks along the edges. Exhibits during the Newseum’s final days included an exploration of the cultural and political influence of Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show,” a look at the history of the struggle for LGBTQ rights and a display depicting the history of presidential dogs.

Gavankar said the Freedom Forum, which originally maintained the Newseum in northern Virginia for years, would continue its mission in different forms. The educational foundation maintains a pair of exhibits on the Berlin Wall in both Reagan and Dulles airports. Next year, those displays will be replaced by exhibits on the women’s suffrage movement. The current Rise Up! exhibit on LGBTQ rights will move to a new long-term home in the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle.

Ashraf Khalil, The Associated Press

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

(Contributed)
Red Deer youth missing

Red Deer RCMP seek public’s assistance

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 11, 2021. Trudeau is rejecting accusations from Alberta’s justice minister that his federal government is part of a trio rooting for that province’s health system to collapse due to COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Alberta justice minister sorry for saying feds, others rooting for COVID disaster

Blame and responsibility have recently been at the centre of debate in Alberta

A rodeo south of Bowden drew a huge crowd on May 1 and 2, 2021. (Photo courtesy Northcott Rodeo Inc. Facebook page)
Alberta takes legal action against pastor, rodeo organizers for gatherings

Rallies and protests have been occurring regularly in Alberta

Minister of Health Patty Hajdu responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Coalition says users were shut out of drug decriminalization proposal, demands redo

Health Canada is working on Vancouver request for exemption from criminal provisions on simple possession

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Here is a list of latest COVID-19 restrictions in effect in Alberta

New mandatory health restrictions are now in effect in Alberta. Additional restrictions… Continue reading

Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) celebrates with defenseman Victor Hedman (77) after the team defeated the Dallas Stars during an NHL hockey game Wednesday, May 5, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)
Analysis: McDavid NHL’s MVP front-runner in condensed season

Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid has 100-plus point season

Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Jack Campbell (36) makes a save as Maple Leafs defenceman TJ Brodie (78) and Montreal Canadiens forward Tyler Toffoli (73) look for the rebound during first period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Saturday, May 8, 2021. The Leafs and the Canadiens will meet in the playoffs for the first time in 42 years when the 2020-21 NHL post-season gets underway.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Singer Celine Dion performs during her first World Tour show called Courage Wednesday, September 18, 2019 at the Videotron Centre in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot
Songbird Uncaged: Celine Dion readies return to Las Vegas stage for 10-date run

Starting on Nov. 5, Dion will play 10 dates at the Resorts World Las Vegas theatre

An Empire Day/Victoria Day gathering of school children on Ross Street by the Cenotaph in the 1920s. On the right hand side, are members of the Red Deer Citizens Band (forerunner of the Red Deer Royals). (Photo via Red Deer Archives)
Victoria Day event helped after war

One hundred years ago, on May 24, 1921, a major community event… Continue reading

Gwynne Dyer
Gwynne Dyer: Independence is a one-way gate

Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland declared in 2014 that the referendum… Continue reading

Boston Bruins left wing Nick Ritchie (21) and Washington Capitals defenseman Brenden Dillon (4) battle for the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, May 11, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Raffl’s late goal pushes Capitals past Bruins, 2-1

Raffl’s late goal pushes Capitals past Bruins, 2-1

Chicago Blackhawks left wing Alex DeBrincat (12) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Florida Panthers in Chicago, Saturday, May 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Toews’ question chases Chicago Blackhawks into offseason

Toews’ question chases Chicago Blackhawks into offseason

Most Read