Museum (myū-zē'əm), from the Latin Mūsēum, and the Greek Mouseion, shrine of the Muses, is a noun that calls to mind a building intended for the collection, preservation and appreciation of artifacts that recall the past.
Newseum (nū-zē'əm) may thus be imagined as describing a similar kind of hagiography for news and the news business. The imposing, extensive, expensive Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington most certainly is.
Erected at a cost of about $450 million, it is a seven-story, 250,000 square-foot monument to an age that was fading into history even as hundreds of its acolytes stood on polished floors to sip wine and martinis and celebrate Monday evening. This is not simply a museum of news; it’s a museum of Big News and Big News Companies.
The story it celebrates is already an artifact. The oligarchic era of heroic news anchors and preening press barons is over.
There is much to love about the Newseum simply as memoir of a grand and romantic time. There are moving Pulitzer photos and artifacts of great events -- from the twisted rubble of 9-11 to a substantial chunk of the Berlin Wall. There are numberless video screens recounting heroic deeds. There are interactive exhibits, huge elevators with their own bars aboard, a glass-walled Newseum nerve center to be admired (from a distance). There is a touching and sobering memorial to fallen journalists, a long list few citizens realize typically represents a wartime casualty rate higher than the soldiers’. Let me be clear about this: I’ve worshiped at the Church of News longer than most and few can claim deeper devotion, so it’s small wonder that many exhibits -- great and small -- moved me. People like me will love it.
The grand edifice also intends to be an audacious advocate for the First Amendment, parked squarely on Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House. To whatever degree it is successful in inspiring a bit more fervor for the endangered freedoms of that vital amendment, it will be worth all the hundreds of millions of dollars it represents.
But I fear that may be a tenuous hope. First Amendment inspiration is unlikely to be the reaction commonly evoked by this Newseum. Instead, the overwhelming, dominant message is this: I Am Big News and you are my consumer. Behold my works, and tremble. It seems self-referential to the point of hubris.
I could be wrong. Maybe I’m just tired and cranky. I hope so.
Fall, mountains; just don’t fall on me.