No driving trip to Florida was ever complete without a prolonged stop at the Smithsonian Museum, affectionately termed “The Nation’s Attic.” This year, I actually arrived too early for the museum, a rare event anywhere.
I was forced to take the long, long hike to my cultural alternative, The Newseum.
Here is what they say about themselves: “The world’s most interactive museum, where five centuries of news history meets up-to-the-second technology on America’s Main Street.” Not shy, are they?
The sidewalk exhibit features front newspaper pages from across the country. Sadly, they chose to exhibit the Portland Press Herald instead of the Bangor Daily News. When I objected, I was told they alternate Maine papers.
After a lifetime associated with newspapers, the museum was irresistible.
The $20 entrance fee (the Smithsonian museums are all free) was covered on the first floor, where I sat through a charming documentary on Americans, their sporting events and what it means to us. As a sports deviate, I was thrilled. A few feet away was an exhibit of Neil Leifer sports photos, he of Sports Illustrated fame. His iconic picture of Muhammad Ali towering over the floored and beaten Sonny Liston was a career maker, but just another day in the life of this fortunate photographer. In a recorded comment, Leifer admitted that he, like Lou Gehrig, considered himself “the luckiest man in the world.”
The first level also included an exhibit on “G-men and Journalists” with articles from John Dillinger (his gat and cigar) to 9/11, which included the aircraft engines pulled from the wreckage and the credit cards from a woman who died in the flames with her daughter.
In the same exhibit is the cabin built and inhabited by Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. We forget that he killed three people and injured 23 more with his homemade explosive devices. The actual cabin! Five feet away is the coat worn by Patty Hearst when she was captured by the FBI in 1974.
Still in the basement is an exhibit of the Berlin Wall. There are several three ton sections and the guard tower which loomed over the wall. The museum reminds us that this was a wall not to keep out enemies, but to keep in their own countrymen. The West Berlin side of the wall is covered with graffiti. The East German side was untouched. Putting graffiti on that side would have been a death sentence.
The second floor is just as amazing, including an exhibit on the Watergate scandal. The museum has the actual door that was taped by the burglars, with the tape still around the handle.
The car from the Don Bolles assassination is in the museum exhibit. Bolles was a crusading Arizona journalist who got a little too close to the Mafia. Six sticks of dynamite taped to the car floor destroyed the vehicle and killed Bolles a few days later. The floor includes every single Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph. Every single one.
The Newseum has actual front pages dating back to Gettysburg until today. Naturally the classic 1948 Chicago Tribune with the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” is included with the explanation that the Trib had to go to press early that election night because of union problems.
Tim Russert’s desk is there along with slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s laptop, left behind when he was kidnapped, then murdered. There is an entire wall dedicated to journalists murdered for their work, dating back to Elijah Lovejoy in Illinois, beaten to death in 1837 by a mob who objected to his anti-slavery editorials.
Naturally, Edward R. Murrow gets his own exhibit.
Like most museum tours, I get cross-eyed with fatigue after about two hours. I could not even see the film exhibits of the interactive section where you can make your own news broadcast.
I will have to come back another day, perhaps on the return drive from Florida. I will go to the Newseum first, even before the Smithsonian.
The Unabomber’s actual cabin. The original Watergate door, with the tape still on it. Patty Hearst’s jacket.
Send complaints and compliments to Emmet Meara at firstname.lastname@example.org.