The Newseum as Lieux de Mémoire

Image of News History Gallery at Newseum. The side of the timeline that is shown begins in 1455. There are glass cases on either side of the timeline filled with additional artifacts.

In reflecting on Nora and Trouillot’s accountings of the production of history and memory, I was strongly reminded of the News History Gallery at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., the site of my undergraduate anthropology* thesis research.

Called a “museum unto itself”, the News History Gallery is laid out in a linear, chronological pattern, centered on a timeline displaying 500 years of historic newspapers and magazines, starting in 1455. The narrative provided by this display offers a view of how the form and content of news has changed over time, while also illustrating major world events over time. The display upholds the idea that news is a direct translation of the world; if we were there to witness the events, we would have noticed the same things as the reporter.

The News History Gallery offers a contrast to the linear march through history suggested by the physical timeline by interspersing touch screens throughout the display. These touch screens allow visitors to jump around in time, to consider how news was presented at different points in history. This interplay between different notions of time calls to mind Trouillot: “Time here is not mere chronological continuity. It is the range of disjointed moments, practices, and symbols that thread the historical relations between events and narrative.” (146)

At the end of the timeline, a label referencing Marshall McLuhan reads, “In the 21st century, the medium and the messenger often are considered as newsworthy as traditional news.” In other places, the Newseum defines news as the constantly new: “Every day the world comes to you: we call it the news. Prints and pictures, sights and sounds, reports that tell you what’s new, what’s news?” (Newseum Orientation Film, visited 14 September 2012). The Newseum functions to memorialize the news, which on the one hand feels like extreme absurdity, but on the other hand could be read as the height of lieux de mémoire: “Lieux de mémoire have no referent in reality; or rather, they are their own referent: pure, exclusively self-referential signs” (Nora 23).

*Side note: I was excited to learn that Trouillot was an anthropologist and was curious how this affected his interpretations and how the book would have been different if he were an historian.

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