The day the Newseum opened its nearly half-billion-dollar cathedral to journalism near the National Mall, I got two hours to explore the museum on my own before doors opened to the public.
It was April 11, 2008. I was a 20-year-old college student from North Carolina who was in D.C. for a semester-long study program at the Washington Journalism Center (operated by the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities). I was elated to learn that a palace dedicated to the craft I loved would open while I was in town.
My instructor canceled Friday morning classes so we could attend the Newseum’s free grand opening. Having never been first for anything and eager to display my passion for journalism, I knew I wanted to be first in line when the doors opened at 8 a.m. I awoke before sunrise, threw on some jeans, and ran the mile from my apartment behind the U.S. Supreme Court to the Newseum. When I arrived, Pennsylvania Avenue was already blocked and employees were placing print-outs of the day’s front pages in displays outside the entrance.
I didn’t see crowd stanchions, so I asked a worker where to go. I was told to head around back to the rear of the building. I thought his instruction peculiar, but perhaps the museum was using a special entrance for the opening and the line would eventually snake along the sidewalk to the front. (In retrospect, perhaps the man saw the DSLR I recently purchased and assumed I was on business.) I found the back door open. As I wandered down the hallway I didn’t see anyone in line in front of me.
Then the hall opened to the exhibit floor.
It was 5:30 a.m., and somehow I was the only visitor inside.
With my camera over my shoulder, I decided to use the opportunity to look around and capture shots of staffers making final preparations. The floors were still being buffed. Workers stood on ladders, polishing signs. One woman tested the interactive broadcast booths. From the fifth floor, I looked into the atrium and saw 70-some staff in emerald Newseum jackets huddling around a man in a suit.
As an aspiring journalist, I treasured time alone to listen, watch and touch the exhibits that paid homage to the career I wanted. It felt unbelievable to be the first to experience it all on opening day. I could take in the gallery of breathtaking and often poignant Pulitzer Prize-winning photography without the jostle and noise of a crowd.
Around 7:20 a.m., one of my classmates called my cell.
“Where are you?” she asked.
I explained. Ten minutes later, she and three of my other classmates joined me. They had been waiting out front but decided to try my route. An employee at the back looked them over, shook her head, and told them, “You all seem like good kids. Just this once.”
I was excited to tell them where I thought they should go first. With just 30 minutes until doors opened, Pennsylvania Avenue bustled with hundreds of people. TV news trucks were broadcasting. A marching band snaked through the building. And at 8 a.m., confetti fell and press packed the lobby as the first official visitors came in.
I continued touring the Newseum with my friends. When we snapped photos from the sixth-floor terrace, we could see the line to get in now strung a city block.
It was an unbelievable opportunity to be there at the start. After graduating from Lee University I went on to careers with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in Tennessee and the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
I am saddened that the Newseum is closing. When it opened on Pennsylvania Avenue, it felt like it would always be there. It felt like I would always be in journalism. But around the same time the Newseum announced it would move on, I also decided to take a break from news to work on a book.
And if the Newseum reopens, someone else will get to be first.
Harrison Keely went on to careers with the Chattanooga (Tennessee) Times Free Press and the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He’s currently working on a book from his home in North Carolina.