As the Newseum closes its doors, pieces of history and human remains to find a new resting place

Michael E Ruane

THE WASHINGTON POST – People crowded around the twisted antenna from the World Trade Center’s North Tower.

They peered at the famous door that was jimmied during the Watergate burglary. And they walked around the forbidding pieces of the Berlin Wall.

But as visitors thronged the Newseum in downtown Washington on its final day yesterday, few seemed to notice the small gray plaque in the floor on the third level.

Beneath it rest remains of four news photographers killed in 1971 when their helicopter was shot down during the Vietnam War.

The stainless steel reliquary with trace remains of Larry Burrows, Henri Huet, Kent Potter and Keisaburo Shimamoto has been at the heart of the Newseum and its memorial to fallen journalists since it was dedicated in 2008.

Sections of the Berlin Wall draw visitors before the Newseum shut its doors for good. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
People gather around a crumped antenna from the North Tower of the World Trade Center on the Newseum’s final day

Burrows, 44, of Life magazine; Huet, 43, of the Associated Press; Potter, 23, of United Press International; and Shimamoto, 34, of Newsweek were aboard a South Vietnamese helicopter that was downed on February 10, 1971, during an incursion into Laos.

The Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue was to be their last resting place. But like everything else in the glittering shrine to the news business, down the street from the Capitol, they also must go.

That includes the huge antenna from World Trade Center, which was destroyed September 11, 2001; the hunks of the Berlin Wall, which came down in 1989; and the Watergate door, tied to the break-in that eventually forced United States (US) President Richard Nixon to resign in 1974. “Everything goes,” said Sonya Gavankar, a Newseum spokeswoman and 20-year veteran of the facility.

Artefacts the Newseum owns will move into a storage facility in Maryland, while items on loan will be returned to lenders, Gavankar said. The museum owns the World Trade Center antenna, the Berlin Wall segments and the Watergate door, she said.

The journalists’ remains will be returned to the Pentagon’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

The moves will begin tomorrow and take about six months.

“A lot of people use the words ‘bitter sweet’,” Gavankar said. “It’s hard to be bitter about something that you’re so proud of.” The Newseum, plagued by money woes, a daunting entrance fee and the recession, closed after 11 years in Washington and, before that, 11 years in Rosslyn.

Johns Hopkins University bought the building in January from the Freedom Forum, the foundation that created the Newseum. The university plans to redesign the structure as a centre for graduate studies.

Yesterday it was busy and almost festive, as holiday visitors crowded in for a final look at the museum’s kaleidoscopic take on history and journalism.

There was a black-and-white clip of legendary TV broadcaster Walter Cronkite, removing his glasses and struggling to keep his composure as he announced that US President John F Kennedy had been assassinated on November 22, 1963.

There was a copy of The Washington Post front page from August 9, 1974, with the headline “Nixon Resigns”. It sat in a display case near a political bumper sticker reading, “Support Nixon, Impeach the Nation.” And there was a copy of a newspaper with one of the biggest blunders in journalism: the Chicago Daily Tribune’s premature 1948 election headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman.” The paper called the race too early, with Republican candidate Thomas Dewey in the lead before Democratic incumbent Harry S Truman came back to win. Other miscues, in the form of poorly worded headlines, decorated the walls of the restrooms.

“Genetically Modified Crops Talk of Meeting,” read one from the News-Gazette.

“Panda Lectures This Week at National Zoo,” The Post once announced.

The gallery of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs was especially crowded on the last day. Visitors were entranced by Joe Rosenthal’s photo of Marines raising the American flag over Iwo Jima in World War II, Nathaniel Fein’s picture of a solitary Babe Ruth bidding Yankee Stadium farewell in 1948 and Carol Guzy’s photo of a young US soldier trying to control a mob in Haiti in 1994.

Casey Lipson, 30, a technology consultant who lives a few blocks from the Newseum, made his first and last visit yesterday.

“I’m disappointed for two reasons,” he said. “One, that I hadn’t visited sooner. And two, that it’s leaving.”

He got up early and arrived at the Newseum as it opened.

“Here I am,” he said. “I made it.” Nearby, visitor services representative Carol Atkins, 74, stood in a green jacket giving directions.

A retired nurse, she said she has worked at the Newseum part-time since before it opened. She wore a 10-year pin on her lanyard. As she waited near the World Trade Center antenna, she remembered how, when it was first installed, teachers wouldn’t bring children near the exhibit because it was too disturbing. She said some visitors turn away in tears and tell her “where they were when it happened, if a friend or a family member lost their life. It was really, really so emotional”.

The artefact, bent and twisted from the terrorist attack that brought down the New York landmark, is set against a backdrop of dozens of newspaper front pages from the next day.

“Horror,” said one. “Terror,” said another. “Infamy,” said yet another.

Together, they served as the national voice as the country came to grips with the disaster. “The ability to have all of your First Amendment rights displayed” in one place is crucial, Atkins said about the Newseum.

“Anybody can see one exhibit, but you don’t get the big picture of how important that is.”

She said she remembers standing on the facility’s outdoor terrace overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue during Barack Obama’s first inauguration. “Hearing the crowd roar,” she said. “That was something.”

After the Newseum closed for the last time yesterday, Atkins said, staff members were invited to gather for a final toast in the atrium.

There, she would say goodbye and turn in her walkie-talkie.