Sunday, February 2, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

Your humble correspondent, just as they were putting out the office cat and turning out the lights. Dec 31, 2019.

Stop the Presses:

The Newseum Is Now Old News.

By Rick Marschall.

I went to Washington DC over the recent Christmas-New Year holiday. I make the trip a couple times a year, if for no other reason than to visit my money. Every taxpayer should do this.

All seriousness aside, I went to college in DC (American University), and my son is a TV news producer with a network affiliate station. In between, I have many old and new friends there, at institutions like the Library of Congress and the National Portrait Gallery; one of my publishers, Regnery, is there; and some friends in politics. For several years I was connected with the National Foundation of Caricature and Cartoons, first as a board member, then President, including of its Gallery on E Street near the White House.

The exterior of the Newseum, looking down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol.

But recently one of my targets was to “close a circle.” On Dec. 31, 2019, the Newseum closed its doors. It was an event itself, sad and notable; but I had worked with them – Gannett, the Freedom Foundation, and some optimistic souls – when it began. That was in 1997, I think, and my help was solicited partly because of the Foundation connection, but mostly as a consultant, as they planned exhibitions; and as a potential lender, as they filled the cases and displays.

I did consult, and I did lend. I sat in on planning sessions, always the advocate for cartoons and comic strips. Political cartoons. Pictorial journalism. Editorial cartoons. Sunday funnies…

The Newseum opened across the Potomac in Crystal City, Arlington, at first, and eventually moved to a huge new building on Pennsylvania Ave in the District. There were always many exhibitions – interactive, rotating, and permanent. There was a theater, as C-SPAN junkies will know, and broadcast facilities used briefly by ABC, Al-Jazeera, and others.

On the Wall of Comics, one of the pages I loaned to the Newseum, and the acknowledgment that surprised me. In fact, on a number of ID cards (not only in the comics and cartoon sections) I noticed errors of facts, dates, and names. I suppose they were incorrect for the entire 22 years…

There were many reasons why the Newseum failed. The news business is a hard sell these days, thanks or no thanks to electronic technologies (and, for all the putative adaptations, the Newseum was a monument to print journalism) and, no doubt, the widespread perception of bias that has broken America’s love affair with News. When exhibitions were good they were very good; many were utterly mundane; and some were theme-park type obligatory placeholders.

Another nail in its coffin might have been its overreach as a virtual palace: seven levels; 250,000 square feet; 15 theaters; 15 galleries. Finally – really finally – I realized when my son’s press pass spared us the entry fee, $25 for adults.

A nice perspective shot of a history wall display, hoping to provide perspective indeed to visitors.

In a city hosting some of the finest museums in the world, any museum charging any fee was headed for “30,” as reporters used to say at the end of stories. It had been a similar challenge with the Foundation and Gallery with which I was connected. We had a small building, the original, historic Washington Star Building, but a rental tab of eight-thousand dollars a month. Some day, here, I will tell more of its story.

Back to the Newseum. We roamed the floors and galleries, and visited the empty gift shop. There were the clever pull-out drawers of notable front pages and headlines, the wall display celebrating the First Amendment, theaters with grainy old television news reports. We landed on the moon again; Nixon resigned again; the Berlin Wall (portions of which are at the Newseum) was breached one last time. They became melancholy echoes as closing time was announced.

A portion of the Berlin Wall on display in a special gallery. It brought back memories. I was in Germany when the “wall fell,” but at the Frankfurt Book Fair, not in Berlin, I had dinner with a dozen or so editors and publishers, most in the 20s or 30s, and I was surprised that most of them were supremely indifferent, or slightly hostile, to Communism’s demise. It remains a matter of surprise to me.

Among the many ghosts I was surprised to find myself. Many of the newspaper pages and magazine covers acknowledged lenders, if not the Newseum’s own collection – foundations or syndicates or other museums. I was startled to see a Little Nemo page with “Courtesy Rick Marschall Collection” on the card. I didn’t know they still were acknowledging me. Just  my luck; now they’re closing.

Seriously, it was a good dream. Its demise is now being blamed on America’s growing indifference to Freedom of the Press, but that is face-saving press-agentry. It attempted to be too many things to too few people, an extravagant over-reach in a city thick with museums and even the Senate and House, where citizens may roam free, constrained only against feeding the animals.

The Newseum maintained a focus on contemporary political cartoonists on a rotating basis. Their last is shown here: left-wing cartoonist Darrin Bell.

In a Crowded Life, it was cool and perhaps ironic that I was there on Opening Day and Closing Day too. When all is said and done, if it had been done right, someone like me would have been a frequent visitor through the years.

– 30

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