The Newseum

Window on the World

The Newseum’s second act brings the story of media to the news capital, with an EGD program that’s designed to keep pace 24/7/365.

Launching a new museum from the ground up is no mean feat. It’s not only costly and exhaustive—it’s also a gamble. If you build it, will they come?

That was certainly the case for the Newseum, which opened in Arlington, Virginia, in 1997 with exhibit design by Ralph Appelbaum Associates. “The owners were originally concerned that not many visitors would come to the Newseum because it was off the beaten path,” says Christopher Miceli, RAA senior associate. “But what it had going for it was its proximity to the Iwo Jima Memorial and Arlington Cemetery.”

As it turned out, the museum had no problem attracting visitors. In fact, it became apparent almost immediately that the museum would quickly outgrow its capacity (750,000 visitors annually) and would benefit from a more high-profile location. So when a plot of land opened up on Pennsylvania Avenue, in the heart of Washington, D.C., the Newseum snatched it up for $100 million and got to work on “Newseum 2.0.”

A focus on transparency
The seven-floor, 250,000-sq.-ft. building by Polshek Partnership Architects includes galleries, theaters, retail spaces, and visitor services. The building was conceived as an oversized 3-D newspaper and the galleries as veritable pages in the newspaper, with content that is updated yearly, monthly, and even daily. The clean, contemporary, glass-and-steel architecture is also metaphorically a reflection of the industry it represents: rather than putting exhibits “behind closed doors,” the soaring glass reinforces the notion of transparency and the importance of freedom of the press. In fact, the 45-word First Amendment is carved into a 74-foot-tall marble slab on the building’s façade.

As for the exhibits, a simple upgrade wouldn’t suffice for “Newseum 2.0.” The $52 million exhibitions budget (part of a $450 million total project budget) indicates the museum owners understood the value of a well thought-out design. “It’s really a fresh start in terms of environmental graphics, with a new aesthetic and a new exhibit design,” says Bryan Sieling, the Newseum’s Chief of Design. The building’s openness, however, presented a series of challenges for designers at RAA and fabricators at Kubik, which constructed and installed the exhibit signage.

“Unfortunately, transparency conflicts with the idea of a museum that contains objects meant to be preserved for future generations,” Miceli says. So the architects worked closely with RAA to conceive the building as three volumes, connected by bridges and balconies, which afford varying degrees of transparency: full, partial, and dark. This approach not only helps keep artifacts preserved where appropriate (such as in the News History Gallery), but it also visually breaks up the space for visitors as they traverse 1.25 miles of exhibits on six floors.

Taking cues from the news
The client directive for the signage was twofold. First, tell the entire story of news and, in the process, educate the public on the importance of freedoms guaranteed under the First Amendment. Second, make the Newseum visitor-friendly and easy to navigate. Poulin + Morris designed a color-coded, architecturally integrated wayfinding system that helped address the second goal, and RAA focused on the first directive.

Once the building’s form was established, RAA began carving gallery spaces that would lend structure to the transparency and tell the major stories throughout history. Like the building, the gallery signage was treated much like a 3-D newspaper. Oversized 3-D letters at the entrance to each gallery are “headlines” that literally coexist within the architecture. The letters are the same color as the background, but the shadows they cast make them readable and lend the look of embossed lettering, much like a print block. “The letters stick out, but they don’t scream,” Miceli notes.

Inside the galleries, an informational hierarchy takes cues from the architecture’s restrained color and materials palette. For example, debossed letters are carved out of the wall surfaces and accentuated at the edges with colors that correspond to the wayfinding system for each floor. Donor signage in each gallery consists of perforated-metal backgrounds with stainless-steel headers and LCDs that focus on the donors’ contributions to the profession. Porcelain enamel interpretive panels lend elegance and durability, a key consideration when nearly 2 million visitors are expected to visit annually.

Soaring signage
In the building’s middle volume, where light is ample but diffuse, Miceli says, “The architecture provided for some really grand spaces, and galleries were scaled for content.” For example, the Journalists Memorial is a triple-height space that’s set up like a chapel, with several rows of stainless steel benches and a frosted-glass memorial wall that curves overhead, looming above visitors. “The architecture of the building is orthogonal, so we introduced a curve that activates the volume and enhances readability,” he adds. The memorial, which consists of 24 4-by-11-foot panels, each weighing about 700 pounds, recognizes more than 1,800 deceased journalists from 1837 to the present.

The 9/11 Gallery also takes full advantage of its verticality. A 31-ft.-high display of 127 newspaper covers from September 12, 2001, gives a sense of the enormity of this event. At the center of the exhibit, the antenna recovered from the World Trade Center—angled in the same position it was in the now-memorable shot before the building fell—is a sculptural artifact from the day. And a series of images projected onto a full-height limestone wall portrays 9/11 in a haunting, ghostlike manner.

In the 90-ft. glass atrium, a 40- by 22-ft., 2-million megapixel LCD screen is strategically placed 50 ft. up to make it visible from multiple points within the building and outside. “We wanted something flexible that conveyed a sense of the industry and that could be used after-hours for functions,” Miceli says. “We also wanted it to be an icon for the museum, something that would mirror the concept of this ‘window on the world’ that the architects created.” Installed on a huge joist, the 16-ton, $4 million screen can also be lowered to ground level to create a dramatic backdrop for featured speakers.

Spotlight on history and ethics
The Newseum’s largest gallery, the News History Gallery, is in the building’s sunlight-protected “dark” volume. Here, a centrally located 120-ft.-long glass spine features more than 350 front pages and magazines dating from 1541 to the present. Eight glass-enclosed display cases are organized thematically on either side of the spine. Above them, a long, electronic frieze scrolls slowly through panoramic or individual images via 22 projectors (11 on each side).
In the two-floor Interactive Newsroom and Ethics Center, oversized glass rectangles are stacked vertically on separate floors, with the Media Tower at the top and the Ethics Center placed literally—and symbolically—at the bottom.

“Ethics is a fragile concept, and glass conveys that idea,” Miceli explains. “We also wanted it to glow, like a beacon of truth.” Here, 10 interactive stations, including an Ethics Table, give visitors opportunities to test their own ethics.

The Media Tower in the Internet, TV and Radio Gallery has at its center a glowing glass box similar to the Ethics Center, but with 48 screens on two walls that loop through news from the beginning of the electronic age to the present day. The glass doors swing open so TV screens can be easily replaced if they break down. Wrapping the room’s perimeter, a timeline with black-and-white and color Lambda prints highlights great moments in news.

The museum is the medium
Because of the nature of news¬—breaking news can be relayed virtually instantaneously via electronic mediums—changeability was a key aspect of the exhibit design program.

“The Newseum is quite unique among museums because it’s about journalism and news media, so all exhibits have changeable components,” Sieling says. “Every exhibit can be changed daily if necessary.”

For example, peg systems in three locations—the Digital News Gallery, the Special Exhibits Gallery, and the News History Gallery—allow for “instant exhibits” that can be changed out in 8-in. increments. In the Special Exhibits Gallery, for example, photos from the Beijing Olympics were changed out almost daily in August. In the Pulitzer Prize Gallery, graphics are refreshed once a year when winners are announced.

But the Newseum’s most impressive feat is printing out and installing the front pages of 160 daily newspapers every day. The staff receives more than 600 front pages electronically, selects and prints 160 of them at its in-house print shop, and has them installed and ready for view by the time the museum opens at 9 a.m.

The road to completion
It took architects, designers, and fabricators seven-and-a-half years to complete the building, which opened in April 2008. And the process was not without its share of challenges. “Details called for gaps of 1/16 inch, which is very tight,” says Sam Kohn, president of Kubik. “The level of integration to architecture and the level of precision required to make this work was bar none the most difficult we’ve ever done.”

To create a seamless integration between building and signage, brackets were installed behind perforated-metal walls, ceilings were dropped around the signage, and some elements were put in place before the floors were poured. Kohn says it took a full year to fabricate and install the 4,000 graphic components in the building.

The building’s openness has also presented unforeseen navigational challenges for visitors. “We have a preferred route through the building, but because of its openness, we’ve found that some people are not following the path,” Sieling says. So the in-house team is tweaking the wayfinding system by installing temporary signage, changing the sign design, and relocating some signs to make them more visible.

Working out the kinks is pretty standard fare for a newly opened museum, and Miceli says the exhibit and signage program is holding up quite nicely. “Everything was tested many times before it was installed so that maintenance would be minimal,” he says. “You just need lots of Windex to keep the glass clean.”

--By Jenny S. Reising, segdDESIGN No. 22, 2008 



Location:  Washington, D.C.

Client:  Newseum

Architecture:  Polshek Partnership Architects

Exhibition Design:  Ralph Appelbaum Associates

Design Team:  Ralph Appelbaum (principal in charge); Christopher Miceli (design director); Michael Maggio, Nicolas Guillin, Kai Chiu, Chris Niederer (designers); Amanda Voss, Tommy Matthews , Matthew McNerney, John Locascio, Robert Stern, Nancy Hoerner (graphic designers); Kate Cury, David Mandel (content coordinators); Nikki Amdur (editor)

Fabrication:  Kubik (exhibit fabricator), Laboratorio Museotechnico Goppion (display cases), Ely Inc. (artifact mounting)

Consultants:  Turner Construction Company (general contractor); SHAcoustics (acoustic design); Electrosonic, Communications Engineering (A/V systems); Newseum (interactive media, script writing); Brandston Partnership (lighting); LERA (structural engineering); Flack + Kurtz (MEP); Lalire March Architects (retail design)

Photos:  ©Albert Vecerka/Esto

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