Newseum exhibits adaptability to change

From its extensive FBI showcase to new-media displays, the museum keeps itself newsworthy

When the Newseum opened its new $450 million museum on Pennsylvania Avenue in April, the communications team expected the entity itself would be the media hook. The opening did garner splashy national coverage both because of the quirky artifacts it displays – like Wonkette's (Ana Marie Cox) slippers – and the sleek, contemporary building.

But soon after the unveiling, a Newseum exhibit – “G-Men and Journalists: Top News Stories of the FBI's First Century” – stole some of the launch's thunder.

“We thought the museum [would] be the opening exhibit, but [the FBI] offer of artifacts was so powerful and dramatic,” says Susan Bennett, VP of marketing at the Newseum.

The FBI wanted to showcase several of its most compelling artifacts at the Newseum to celebrate its 100th anniversary this year. The criminology and mystery surrounding the FBI has long intrigued outsiders, and its tour was considered among the most popular in DC – ranking even ahead of the White House, says Bennett. But security concerns closed the tour in 2002.

So just as coverage of the Newseum's glitzy seven levels, 15 theatres, and 14 galleries began to recede, the FBI exhibit opened in June with sensational artifacts like John Dillinger's death mask and the electric chair which executed Lindbergh baby kidnapper Bruno Hauptmann. But it was the convicted “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski's 10- by 12-foot cabin as a central artifact that stirred controversy after Kaczynski wrote a letter to a three-judge US Court of Appeals panel protesting the exhibit.

The peculiar back-and-forth between the convicted recluse and the museum captured national media interest and swamped the communications team with media inquiries. But holding two big media events so close together was hard on the four-person team that doesn't use an outside PR firm.

Michael Fetters, director of marketing and communications at the Newseum, says it helped that the team had developed close media ties during the five years the museum was housed in Virginia prior to this year's relaunch.

“The media know we are a breaking news museum,” he notes, “so they know they can count on us to have an exhibit on some breaking news or at least have someone here with an interest or knowledge to comment on it.”

Indeed, the team, composed mostly of former journalists, is no stranger to responding quickly to the unexpected, adds Bennett. The museum was located in Virginia during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, just a few miles from where a plane hit the Pentagon. On September 12, 2001 the museum already had a photo exhibit of the catastrophic event on display.

When the Newseum first opened in 1997 in Rosslyn, VA, just outside of Washington, supporters hoped it would draw visitors to the area. But ultimately, it couldn't overcome the geography. Most museums in DC are clustered near the Mall and the White House.

“People were either coming to the museum or were lost looking for Arlington Cemetery,” Bennett recalls. “We got little walk-in traffic.”

After considering several new locations, including New York, the organization heeded CEO Charles Overby's advice to “fish where the fish were.” It doled out $100 million for the one piece of property that could still be developed on Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol.

While the location has a natural allure because of its historical significance, it also forces the Newseum to compete head-on with a handful of the most coveted attractions in the area, notably the Smithsonian museums.

Another challenge is dispelling some misperceptions about the Newseum. For one, the team positions it as a celebration of the First Amendment, history, and current events – not a museum for journalists.

While the traditional news industry has been hurt by the digital age, the new era has given the Newseum a chance to expand its audience and scope. Its citizen journalism display includes a cell phone used to report the Virginia Tech shootings and cell phone photos of the subway bombings in London.

“Though the news industry is struggling, people have more access to news and are getting news in more ways than ever before,” Fetters says. “We feel very comfortable that we have proven to people that the museum is responding to these changes.”

At a glance
Organization: Newseum

CEO: Charles Overby

President: Peter Prichard

Headquarters: Washington, DC

Comms budget: Undisclosed

Key trade titles: Brandweek, American Journalism Review, Editor & Publisher

Comms team:

Susan Bennett, VP of marcomms;

Michael Fetters, director of marcomms;

Tina Tate, director of media relations

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