Is There a Future for Old-Fashioned Museums?

By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 7, 2007

They're building not one Newseum, but two.

One is made of glass and steel, and is under construction on Pennsylvania Avenue, with a stunning view of the Capitol.

The other is made of pixels and bandwidth, and is under construction on a three-dimensional private island on the Web.

This parallel reality looks like an animated movie, except you get to direct your character yourself. He walks wherever you choose, looks at whatever you want to see and fiddles with objects any way you fancy.

In a test run, your character is a muscular young man wearing a green T-shirt and bluejeans. You and he gaze at front pages of the Boston Globe and the American Press of Lake Charles, La. You make him amble past a headline from the day Ronald Reagan died, then play with some fancy interactive devices that allow you, through him, to control what the Newseum shows.

Then, at your command, he does the most astonishing thing. He stretches his arms and flies. Your alter ego soars out of the place like a raptor, and you're with him all the way, pausing to gaze down at the 74-foot-tall Tennessee marble wall with its chiseled First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . . or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . ."

This novel way to experience a museum is still a hush-hush project. It is a simulacrum of the physical Newseum being erected in "Second Life" -- that pioneering testbed of the "metaverse," as the three-dimensional portion of the Web is known.

It raises questions about the very future of museums. Indeed, it can make one ponder whether all those granite and limestone mausoleums that litter Washington have a future at all.

In the age of the networked computer, museums are being fundamentally challenged in the same ways that other bastions of education and entertainment -- from libraries to the music industry -- are being rocked to their cores.

The arguments swirl. Are museums in the bone-and-pigment business, reliquaries of the past? Are they in the theater business, telling stories through sensational lighting, presentations like stage sets and costumed interpretive actors? Are museums in the experience business, forced to reach for ever fancier gizmos and blockbusters to compete with the sports world and Disney for family time and money?

No one has a clue if the Newseum's Second Life experiment will ever go public. "You learn by doing," says Paul Sparrow, the Newseum's vice president for broadcasting and programs. "Like with our first Web site in the '90s."

But the Newseum is already at the cutting edge of museum change. It is, for example, an "idea" museum, like the Holocaust Museum, in that it has a message to deliver. It is entirely wrapped up in issues of "truth" and "reality." It's highly dramatic and emotion-laden. And -- like the industries it honors -- a lot of what it shows became entirely digital a long time ago.

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