Huge piece of Berlin Wall helps Newseum tell media story

April 11th, 2008 - 9:09 am ICT by admin  

Washington, April 11 (DPA) Even removed from Berlin, the watchtower has a threatening mood to it. Along with the 11-metre wide section of the defunct Berlin Wall - said to be the largest outside Germany - it provides visitors of Washington’s newest museum a formidable insight into what life behind the wall in Berlin might have been. It may seem strange to find these relics of Cold War history in the Newseum, which is to open Friday on Washington’s fabled Pennsylvania Avenue and is dedicated to the media and freedom of the press.

But Joseph Campbell, professor for journalism at the American University in Washington and consultant to the museum, emphasized this week that the broadcast media played an important role in eventually bringing down the four-metre-high wall in 1989.

“The remarkable thing is that, unlike the Chinese Wall or most of the other walls built in history, the Berlin Wall was set up to lock in (former East Germany’s) own citizens instead of keeping invaders out,” Campbell says.

While escapees were shot in the back when they tried to cross the closed border, the airwaves of western radio and TV programmes couldn’t be held back that easily. They kept broadcasting information from the outside world into sealed-off East Berlin, providing images of life in democratic Western Germany and other western countries.

In one of the four video features shown in the exhibition, a former reporter of American-run RIAS radio station comments on a workers’ uprising in East Germany in 1953.

He concludes: “There we realized for the first time that electronic media in a given situation can change political events.”

The Berlin Wall section is one of 14 main exhibition galleries in the 32,000-square-meter museum.

Other sections include a World News Gallery where visitors can watch television news and compare the state of press freedom in over 190 countries, and a 4-D-movie theater.

According to chief executive officer Charles Overby, “The Newseum is the technically most advanced and most interactive museum in the world”.

Professor Campbell welcomed the Berlin Wall exhibition as an important educational opportunity for American students - one that obviously comes timely. Museum volunteers reported that school children who visited the Newseum at its previous location in Virginia kept saying they did not have a clue that there was such a wall inside Germany.

The $450-million museum is a private enterprise, launched by the Freedom Forum - a pet project of Al Neuharth, the one-time reporter-turned-publisher whose successful operation of Gannett newspapers helped him found USA Today, the most widely read newspaper in the US.

The outside of the glass-and-cement museum gives the impression of looking at a newspaper front page on one side, and a television screen on the other. It contains the full text of the First Amendment to the US constitution, which guarantees freedom of the press and of speech.

Newseum admission is $20 for adults and $13 for children aged 7-12 - a pricey sum when one considers that admission is free to the vast tax-supported Smithsonian Institution museums directly on the nearby mall.

But Overby told reporters at a preview of the museum that even if the building “was empty and visitors would only read the First Amendment text … it would have been worth building it”.

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