James C. Duff, 58, became president of the Newseum and the Freedom Forum foundation last month. Since the museum opened on Pennsylvania Avenue in 2008, it has become one of the most talked about destinations. The Newseum focuses on the history of the news business, the media and First Amendment protections in a broad spectrum of exhibitions and forums.
Duff has been immersed in the city’s legal life for decades, working for three chief justices. In his last post, he served as chief administrative officer to the U.S. court system. For six years in private practice, Duff served as counsel to the Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan foundation that funds the Newseum. Sitting in his office with one of the best views in town — a sweep of Pennsylvania Avenue — he said he is no stranger to the issues the Newseum covers.
Q: What attracted you to this job after a career in the city’s legal sectors?
A: What attracted me was the opportunity for more civic education. I have devoted most of my career to that. Whatever I’ve done, there was always an education component. I came from a family of farmers and then it was a family of teachers. My mother was the first Head Start teacher in Hamilton, Ohio. My father was a high school teacher and basketball coach in Booneville, Kentucky. The education aspect of this job has tapped into something deep in my soul.
Q: What are the challenges the Newseum faces in balancing the education values with the entertainment aspects the visitors want?
A: We have an enormous opportunity. Most schools have dropped civics, and so there is a huge vacuum to be filled. The challenge is to make the content of exhibits interesting. It’s caramelizing the spinach, a phrase I picked up in our meetings. You have to make the material accessible, interesting and vibrant.
Q: Before you took on this job, was there an aspect of the Newseum’s content and displays you felt filled this mission?
A. I have been teaching a course on civil liberties during wartime at Georgetown. I would bring the students — undergraduate students — to see the 9/11 exhibit and the 9/11 film. They learn the causes of the most recent wars and the role of journalists in covering that tragedy.
Q: In a city where so many museums are free, the Newseum has been criticized for its admission fees. And they keep changing. What’s your position on the fees?
A: All of the admissions formulas have worked. We just need to be a little flexible because the fees have varied from season to season. The people here have been very wise in how they bring people through the doors. We pay attention to the public feedback. And attendance keeps rising.
Q: One of your early accomplishments was making the University of Kentucky's basketball team as a “walk-on.” Will you be looking for more sports exhibits for the museum?
A: Well, we have had some good ones in the past. And there’s a sports photography show coming up in November. We’ll see.