The Newseum, a museum dedicated to the history of news, opened in the spring of 2008. It has several different permanent and rotating exhibits with high-tech documentaries and displays to convince people that news is cool.
The 9/11 exhibit, one of the museum’s permanent fixtures, aims to portray the challenges journalists faced when covering the tragedy as it occurred. I thought my first trip to the Newseum the summer after it opened would be an interesting, but general visit — similar to my view of the news: important, but not necessarily intriguing. I went in with no prior knowledge of the 9/11 exhibit.
The first thing I saw in the exhibit, even before the piece of the broadcast antenna that stands 31-feet tall, was a box of tissues.
This was far from being my first trip to Washington, D.C., but it was my first trip to the Newseum, a perfect museum for news junkies like me. Compared to my crystal-clear memory of Sept. 11, 2011, my memory of my first trip to the Newseum is foggy. I remember it being a warm, summer day. I was with a friend to visit a few museums in the area while her dad was at work in one of the many large buildings packed throughout D.C. It’s funny how I, and everyone else, remember 9/11 clearly when the details of my trip to the museum seven years later is more akin to a dream — gaps in information with a few clear, sensory details.
The antenna, rusted and with wires hanging out, sat in the center of the small exhibit. Two others, in addition to myself and my friend Tiegen, stared at the wall of newspapers with bolded headlines like “Attack on America,” “Outrage,” “Terror” and “Bastards!” Despite the exhibit’s smallness, I had to strain my neck to see the newspapers that stretched upward at least 10 times my height.
I looked at Tiegen, about to comment on how far up this exhibit reached, but it felt rude to break the silence special to this display. Downstairs moments ago, we had been looking at the gallery of news history, joking about the inclusion of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. At the Berlin Wall exhibit, I decided to be a “rebel” and sneak a touch on one portion of the wall depicting a face screaming, “Act up!”
But now I stood in front of the damaged camera equipment and it felt almost sacrilegious to touch something that I had lived through, yet did not understand.
The equipment, along with a notepad and a press pass, belonged to Bill Biggart, a freelancer who I had never heard of before. Tiegen, the two other visitors and I quietly read the descriptions accompanying Biggart’s final photographs he took before he died.
“Eerie,” I whispered. Tiegen only nodded in response.
But then my memory becomes hazy. At some point, we took our seats in the theater to watch one of the many documentaries the Newseum showed. We had already seen a few others, which were feel-good pieces about journalism in general as well as more specific documentaries such as one on sports journalism. Before we sat down, I saw the warning about the film’s graphic, upsetting content. This meant little to me.
As a 17 year old, graphic content warnings just let me know that it was something I shouldn’t take my younger sister to see. Hell, I watched CNN re-play the video of the towers collapsing on 9/11 as a 10 year old never having before experienced a traumatic national event. Upsetting content? I can handle it.
The documentary began. I can’t remember whether there was any music in the beginning, but I like to pretend that it was as silent as it had been moments before seating ourselves. Again, I watched the World Trade Center fall. A man jumped out of a building, followed by several others. People took cover under cars as debris flooded New York City. Some people screamed, clutching on to strangers beside them. Newscasters struggled to learn what was happening, but no one knew. Freelancers, such as Biggart, went directly to the scene, knowing full well of the danger ahead, and clicked the shutter button as fast as possible. New Yorkers cried. Then journalists cried.
With damp cheeks, I left the theater, grabbing the tissues I’d seen when first entering the exhibit.
I still didn’t know a damn thing. I felt just as frustrated as the journalists struggling to convey what had happened that day seven years earlier.
Tiegen and I remained silent. We waited before moving on to the First Amendment gallery. Struggling to memorize everything in that film — not knowing that I would be writing about it three years later with a muddled memory — I took a deep breath.
That was as far as our eloquence would take us.
Carly Smith is a junior journalism major who is pulling for a Buzzsaw exhibit at the Newseum. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.