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D.C.’s Newseum Is Closing Its Doors at the End of the Year

The museum dedicated to the history of journalism and the First Amendment has struggled financially since opening 11 years ago

(Sam Kittner/Newseum)
smithsonian.com

Citing financial difficulties, the Newseum, a museum dedicated to the history of journalism, First Amendment freedoms and the free press, will close its doors at the end of the year.

In a statement, the Washington, D.C., institution revealed that it has struggled financially for several years and can no longer sustain operations at its current location. Last January, the museum’s founder and primary funder, the Freedom Forum, agreed to sell the building to Johns Hopkins University for $373 million. The university will use the Pennsylvania Avenue building for its D.C.-based graduate programs.

Sonya Gavankar, director of public relations for the Newseum, tells Smithsonian.com that all of the artifacts and exhibits will remain in place until the end of 2019, when the building closes to the public. At that time, any artifacts on loan from other institutions will be returned to their owners. Everything in the permanent collection will be moved to an archive facility outside Washington until a location is determined for public display.

The museum has hosted dozens of temporary exhibitions on themes including the coverage of Hurricane Katrina, presidential photographers, the Lincoln assassination, the Vietnam War, as well as various exhibitions on editorial cartoonists and exceptional journalists.

The museum also maintains a permanent 9/11 Gallery, which explores the terrorist attacks and includes first-person accounts from journalists who witnessed the event and artifacts including pieces of the World Trade Center and a piece of the plane that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Its Berlin Wall Gallery is also a significant draw; the space includes eight intact sections of the 12-foot high concrete barricade, the largest unaltered section of wall outside Germany, as well as a three-story guard tower that stood near Checkpoint Charlie.

Over the course of more than 11 years, the Newseum drew some 10 million visitors. But, as Sophia Barnes at Washington’s NBC4 reports, the museum struggled to afford the 400,000-foot venue. The museum charges $24.95 for adult visitors, but with many free options just a few blocks away, the Newseum had difficulty competing.

Speaking with NBC4, Gavankar says that the Newseum hopes to reopen in another, more sustainable, place. “We hope to find a suitable location that can serve as the Newseum’s next home but that process will take time,” she says.

Gavankar adds that the Newseum’s traveling exhibits, including deep dives into rock ‘n’ roll, JFK, the Stonewall Riots, and photojournalism, will continue on at museums around the country.

The closing of the museum is no surprise to those familiar with the Newseum’s financial situation. Peggy McGlone and Manuel Roig-Franzia at the Washington Post report that the Newseum has operated at a deficit every year since opening at its current site. “It’s a slow-motion disaster,” one person with knowledge of the museum’s inner workings told the Post.

Initially founded in 1997 in the D.C. suburb of Rosslyn, the Newseum readied to move into Washington, D.C., proper in 2000. Buoyed by early success, it bought its current site along the Potomac River across from the National Art Gallery for about $146 million (adjusted for inflation).

As Kriston Capps at CityLab reports, the opulent space, which opened to the public in 2008, was the baby of late USA Today and Gannett founder Allen Neuharth, who created the Freedom Forum back in 1991.

Construction cost $450 million, twice initial estimates. Burdened with $300 million in debt, the institution struggled to stay afloat from the get-go. Critics point out that despite financial woes, the institution still paid its director a $630,000 salary; other executives and board members were also paid at rates above the norm for a cultural nonprofit.

“This was a museum that purchased a multi-million-dollar building in a location where, when you look around, there are lots of free museums to go to,” Joanna Woronkowicz of Indiana University tells Capps. “While the mission of the organization is unique, in that sense, it’s not unique in what it provides to people who want to go to museums in D.C.”

Like journalism itself, the Newseum will likely survive in some form despite its financial setbacks, but, as Capps surmises, it probably won’t have all the bells and whistles as it had in its present incarnation.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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