At the Newseum, volunteers become part of the story


The Newseum, which combines news history and current technology, has seven levelsof exhibit space and a variety of opportunities for volunteers. (Sam Kittner)
June 11, 2012

Agostino Bono stands before a rugged and worn wooden structure, facing a 10-person tour group. “For 17 years, Ted Kaczynski lived in this cabin,” Bono says. “He’s better known by his FBI nickname, the Unabomber. From this cabin he made bombs and mailed them to executives at various companies.”

It’s one of the jarring — and true — statements the Newseum tour guide makes as he leads guests on a free spotlight tour throughout the media museum’s seven levels. Exhibits also include a 31-foot section of the broadcast antenna from the World Trade Center’s North Tower and a Bell 206B JetRanger III news helicopter suspended parallel with the second floor. The hour-long tour is intended to acquaint visitors quickly with what the museum has to offer before they explore on their own. For Bono, 69, it’s a way to stay connected to his former career.

A year after retiring from his staff reporter job with Catholic News Service, the Friendship Heights resident signed on as a volunteer when the Newseum reopened at Pennsylvania Avenue and Sixth Street NW in 2008.

“I thought it would be good for me because it allows me to interact with people and talk about journalism as a profession based on my experience as well as the information we have in the Newseum,” he says. Bono gets feedback from people on how they view journalism today, and he keeps up with changes on the Internet.

On this Tuesday afternoon he’s one of a half-dozen volunteers sprinkled throughout the museum. Like the Newseum employees, volunteers wear green polos and khakis, but the maroon “volunteer” lanyards make them stand out.

Gallery guide Paul Littman of Alexandria stands ready to give additional info to passersby in the ground level “G-Men and Journalists” exhibit about the FBI and media.

“Where a tour guide covers the entire building, we are assigned a particular gallery,” Littman explains. “I’ve been trained on eight of them. Today is my day at the FBI. You spend about three to four minutes with groups of four to five and just engage them in some of the talking points. It becomes conversational. I love working with people and answering questions.”

To volunteer at the Newseum, applicants may commit to 40 service hours in the museum’s community service program or a weekly four-hour shift for six months (four-hour weekend-day shifts are every other weekend). Following a two-day training session, all volunteers start in visitors services, which entails working in a particular location to help guests (i.e. assisting with lost and found, giving directions to the cafeteria). Before volunteers can work in a gallery, at the information desk or as tour guides, they must complete a certain number of hours and take additional training.

There are perks, of course. Volunteers receive 12 tickets each to the Newseum to use at their discretion, and there’s a summer barbecue for the volunteers on the museum’s sixth-floor terrace. There also are opportunities to get free access to unique talks and after-hours happenings.

“If there’s a special event and they need volunteers to check people in, monitor or just be handy escorts, they put out a posting to all the volunteers and you can sign up to do it,” says information desk volunteer Mary Beth Moore, 62. “The last one I did was ‘Inside Media’ with Oscar predictions by [The Post’s] Ann Hornaday.”

Oftentimes interacting with the public is a reward in itself. It’s 4:30 p.m. — a half-hour before the museum is due to close — and Moore helps a mother and her two teenage daughters map the best way to pedal a Capital Bikeshare bike to Georgetown Cupcake. When the family leaves, she walks among a crowd of more than 50 teenagers huddled in the lobby, gawking at the museum’s giant 40-by-20-foot video screen.

They’re waiting for the camera that will display them on the big screen, she explains. “Five minutes later, they’ll erupt in: ‘Oh my God! I’m on the screen!’ ”

A few minutes later, Moore’s prediction comes to life as the high school students hoot and holler at their towering projected image. Moore steps to the side of her desk, looks up at the screen and smiles.

Coronado is a freelance writer.

Where is it? Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.

How do I get involved? Apply online at Newseum.org/about/volunteers or call 202-292-6513. Training sessions are held at least once a month.

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