Breaking it Down: A Museum of News, Going Undercover, A Celebration, and Splashes of Color

From time to time, I like to put in my two cents on exhibitions I have seen. However, like any museum goer I bring of baggage: expectations, assumptions. This coupled with my understanding of narrative and story effects what I see presented—especially when it comes to how objects and technology are used to tell a story. In the last two months I’ve seen two museums and two exhibitions: the Newseum, the International Spy Museum, the New York Public Library, and the Ralls Collection in Georgetown.

The History of the News

The Berlin Wall @ the Newseum By on Flickr

Here in DC we are spoiled. The Smithsonian Institution allows us free access to some excellent exhibitions, art and performances. Consequently it takes a lot of convincing for me to pay for a museum, especially one seemingly as large as the Newseum. The traditional adult ticket price for the museum is a $20 pass that will let you in the museum for two days. It is a price clearly meant for tourists, and implies that there are enough activities and exhibits to fill two days at the museum. (Though it feels a little bit unrealistic because if I only had a few days in a particular city I wouldn’t want to go back to the same museum two days in a row). A few months ago a Groupon came up essentially cutting the cost of the museum in half, and so off I went.

The mission of the Newseum is to “educate the public about the value of a free press in a free society and tell the stories of the world’s important events in unique and engaging ways.” And it does. In seven floors the museum addresses the history of the press (from newspapers to radio to television), to the press during pivotal moments of history, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall. It also deals with the first amendment to the Constitution, highlighting its importance in American history.

We went through the museum in about four hours, spending more time in the main gallery with its original books and newspapers showing the progression in headlines and type. While I did appreciate this gallery, I’ve heard that when the museum gets crowded it’s impossible to actually spend any actual time in this space.

They also have a section of the museum dedicated to the tragedy of 9/11. Headlines and broadcast reports document that day. When the ten year anniversary happened a few months ago I realized that I wasn’t quite ready for it, and chose to avoid the documentaries and discussions that evaluated our live since the attack. In this gallery I felt much the same way. My friend and I talked about where we were when it happened, and how vivid some of the details still are. It’s pretty powerful to see everything pulled together in one space, a reminder (as if we need it) of just how insane everything was.

The thing the Newseum does well is to look at current events to show the place of free speech in society. If anything its array of daily newspapers emphasizes the differences in this country, but also, very much highlights some of our similarities. It’s true that good, credible, news tries to be unbiased, but each is reflective of a certain subtle direction – and you can see that by a brief scan of headlines from each state in the country. I also appreciated how the Newseum made the connections between communication platforms from a century ago, to the different ways that we get news today.

I’m not sure if I would recommend paying full price, but if you do have time on your hands and want to see some interesting artifacts by all means go.

Going Undercover

The outside of The Spy Museum in Washington, DC at night.
Credit: Sean Rooks on Picasa

My next museum was another half off deal to the International Spy Museum. I will readily admit that I walked into the museum not knowing what to expect, and like the Newseum expected it to be a bit flashy, after all a museum about spies should be all about the spy experience.

When we first got there we were ushered into elevators that took us to the top floor where we were told to memorize an identity in five minutes. It reminded me, on some level, of visiting the Holocaust Museum, where we left the airy lobby space and entered the dank, din horror of the permanent exhibition (via elevator), complete with our own identity cards….but designed to be like a game rather than to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

In the Spy Museum we were then sent into an orientation video that walks you through the different faces of being a spy, or a double agent even going so far as to chronicle famous spies and traitors to the United States.

The next stop was outfitting, where were told how to do a dead drop, provide signals, disguise ourselves. We even got to crawl through “ductwork” while listening to bugs placed elsewhere in the exhibition….and that’s where things got less interesting.

I’m not saying that the history of spies through the years wasn’t well done – it just didn’t feel engaging or as dynamic as it is touted to be. The set up is a little confusing, and at times as we hopped from time period to time period, I lost the thread of the over arching narrative for the museum.

And those identities? We were told that we would be quizzed about them—but my friend and I only saw the testing at the end, and we walked away thinking that we had missed some crucial piece along the way. (It was a few questions designed to see if you can travel through customs without arousing suspicion.)

I think I may have expected too much, and instead of seeing through the hype was disappointed when I wasn’t “wowed.”

New York Public Library's Main Inquiry Desk (c.1923). Image from the NYPL Flickr Stream.

A Centennial

I’ve often heard that the architecture of the New York Public Library at Bryant Park is a must-see for visitors to the city. So when I had a chance to visit a few weeks ago, I decided to go. It is a beautiful building. Great arches, stonework, what you feel a library should look like. Though there wasn’t time to go through the reading rooms, I did walk through the centennial exhibition “Celebrating 100 Years.”

Not a large exhibition, but it was a very effective one. Dividing the room into Observation, Contemplation, Creativity & Society the objects and books reflect documents of discovery, religion, imagination/fiction, and political/social history. Music scores, Charles Dickens’s letter opener, engravings all pull together a bigger picture the written word.

One of the things I loved about the exhibition was how the architecture features of the building were used to enhance the exhibition. Pre-existing columns and archways mark the section breaks moving visitors in a smooth manner.

Coloring Outside the Lines

Copyright National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Toy Theatre mural opposite the Brewmaster's Castle in Dupont Circle.

Earlier in the month I found myself arrested by color in a mural that had gone up in Dupont Circle. It was fairly magnificent and reminded me of why I find myself in awe of individuals who can put together two seemingly disparate shades of color and make them “pop.”

And so a few days later I visited The Ralls Collection in Georgetown to attend a lecture by two artists about the effect of place (specifically, Japan, Korea, and India) on their work. Once again I found myself drawn into the color and the abstract nature of both of their work.

During their gallery talk, John Blee and David Richardson spoke about how their travels influenced the their color palette. Richardson spoke of how his Expatriate series reflects the reds, gray’s, and blacks of Seoul. That being said, neither individual’s work “screams” Asia, and that subtlety is what makes the paintings strong and imaginative.

Both artists are part of the exhibition “20 Years, 20 Artists at The Ralls Collection” which is filled with a wide array of fantastic pieces. What I loved about the talk was how passionate both artists were about the process, speaking candidly about how they got started, and how their art comes after the inspiration, but also from a place that is sometimes unexplainable.


While this exhibition is different from the three others I described they each worked to tell a story using color, text, objects in an effective way. If you visit (or have visited) any of these exhibitions let me know what you think in the comments below!

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