Newseum’s Sept. 11 exhibit leaves viewers in tears

Posted Feb. 13, 2009, at 7:07 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 10:42 a.m.

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Including mine.

The traditional, annual visit to the Smithsonian Museum was followed this year by a tour of the glittering Newseum, which opened in April 2008 and bills itself as “the world’s most interactive museum.” I won’t argue.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is now 9-11 coverage. After visiting chunks of the Berlin wall on the entry level, visitors approach a room plastered with newspaper coverage from around the world, reporting the 9-11 attack. On a counter, photographs of the carnage from the television coverage are lined up, in chronological order.

In front of the counter is a mangled, burned, twisted piece of steel. Only at the end of the exhibit is it explained that this was the television tower atop one of the tower buildings, which was the highest point in New York City on that bright, shining morning that would change America forever.

The next exhibit is composed of photographs taken by New York photojournalist Bill Biggart. Next to the photos are Biggart’s camera, press pass and jacket. Biggart went closer, ever close to the burning buildings on 9-11 and was crushed when the towers collapsed. His body was found four days later in the rubble. In his cam-era were 150 pictures, including one of the building collapsing on top of him.

But that was just the prelude. On Level Four, a collection of television coverage of 9-11 was shown on a large screen. On the screen, hardened New York City reporters burst into tears on camera. When eyewitnesses started crying, the news crews hugged and comforted them.

There were plenty of tears in the exhibition room, the only sound was the soft crying.

Needless to say, one idiot left his cell phone on and had to run out of the room to avoid disturbing the others. You can guess who that was.

The exhibit also featured the famous Datsun in which Arizona newsman Don Bowles died. His widow said on a taped interview that Bowles was investigating the Arizona Mafia on June 2, 1976, when someone put a bomb under his car. The widow said she had to give permission for the amputation of both of his arms and legs, before the effort to save his life failed.

On a memorial wall, the names of 1,900 other journalists who have lost their lives around the world are displayed with honor.

The exhibition is not all grim. The sidewalk display included newspapers from around the world, including, that day, the Bangor Daily News, offering to the nation exclusive coverage of the Camden Toboggan races. It also included my column, I reminded myself, not that anyone on the Washington, D.C., sidewalk cared.

In an upstairs front-page exhibit from around the country, at least half of them carried the same photo of Maine Sen. Susan Collins, working on the financial bailout package. It was an unflattering photo with the senatorial mouth agape, but publicity is publicity, after all.

You could not get into the basement cafeteria without walking past an exhibition of comics, my second favorite thing in newspapers … after the sports page. Did you know that the first comic came about in a circulation war (remember those?) between Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers in San Francisco. The first comic, if anyone asks, was Hogan’s Alley, which debuted in 1895. Peanuts, everyone’s favorite strip, did not come along until 1950, in the Washington Post.

See what you can learn in museums? I don’t think I saw one third of the Newseum exhibits before I faded.

But I had to tour the revamped Smithsonian Museum of American History, despite the ridiculous crowds and my aching back. I had to make sure that the 1940s exhibit from the Decatur Motor Lodge in York Beach was still included. It made the cut for the new building.

Before my feet gave out, I toured the expansive Lincoln exhibit, including the original Emancipation Proclamation, and the careful restoration of the Star Spangled Banner.

A single day in Washington’s museums only skims the surface, and deadens the feet.

When I left the Smithsonian to get back to my illegally parked truck, I noticed that the pedestrian light gave you 28 seconds to get to the other side. I limped across the street on bone-weary feet. I didn’t make it before the light changed.

The traffic started and a few cabs beeped their displeasure.

A little respect, please. I collected the news for 30 years and once had a rifle bullet go over my head in Burketville. But that is another story altogether.

Send complaints and compliments to Emmet Meara at emmetmeara@msn.com.

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