Pilgrimage

Elizabeth Donald
Nov 30, 2019 · 5 min read

I stood outside the Newseum once, but I didn’t go in.

It was May 2015, and my niece had just graduated from high school. My son and I road-tripped across the country to watch her walk across the stage, and for a little mother-son bonding time. We explored Baltimore, which is a city always dear to my heart after living there for a few years as a teenager. I introduced him to Berger cookies (“too chocolatey” — it’s like I barely know him) and the historic sailing ships in the Inner Harbor.

One day, we took the train into Washington D.C. We had just the one day to fit it all in, and we had prioritized. He wanted to see the real Declaration of Independence — one of his favorite movies as a child was National Treasure, and while he was maturely confident that there was no buried treasure map on the back of the Declaration…. well. He wanted to see it.

So we did the National Archives first, and the Museum of American History. We skipped Natural History because the dinosaur exhibit was shut down (and really, to a teenage boy… it’s all about the dinosaurs) and I sadly skipped Air and Space because the U.S.S. Enterprise was in refurbishment. Priorities, man.

We walked the entire length of the Mall, past the Museum of African-American History that was still under construction and even then was an amazing sight. We visited the Washington Monument and spied both the Capitol Dome behind its scaffolding and, itty bitty from several blocks away, the White House. He had expressed a desire to visit, but it seems you needed to make reservations through the office of your local Congresscritter, and we had not thought to do so.

Then we walked the rest of the way to the Lincoln Memorial, which to him was second only to the Declaration of Independence (much more faded than the one in the movie, he was sad to note). It was raining by then, and we ended up trapped by Abe’s big foot for a while as the storm drenched the area.

This is probably my favorite picture of us ever, hiding from the rain in the Lincoln Memorial.

We visited some war memorials, including the Wall. Then we had the long walk back to the train station through the rain, which drenched us enough that it killed his cell phone and my umbrella. It was a very long, exhausting day, but one of the all-time heights of our travels.

The only regret we had was that we didn’t have time to do more museums and historic sites. Washington is lousy with them, it’s true. You could kill a week there and not see everything. But one day was absolutely not enough.

I lingered outside the Newseum for more than a hot minute. I knew there was no way we could add it to our schedule. It was an enormous draw for me, of course, but unlike many of the other sites, it was not free. It would have added $50 to our costs to go in, and money was very tight that year. We wouldn’t have time for more than a short walk around, and really, I was prioritizing his interests.

After all, I’d been to D.C. a few times before when I lived in Baltimore, and he had never been. Also, he is smarter than I am, and has no intention of going into the news business. He wants to make movies and theater. He certainly has absorbed an appreciation for journalism — you can’t be raised by a single mom reporter and not understand the news. But it’s not his thing.

It’s okay, I told myself. We will come to D.C. another time, maybe when my husband can join us, and we’ll see the Newseum then. I’ll drag them both kicking and screaming if I have to, but I’ll see it next time.

Time marches on. The enormous shift in my life last year, as I left the newspaper and began grad school, losing two-thirds of my income. Priorities.

Then came the announcement last month, breaking the hearts of thousands of newsnerds. The writing had been on the wall for some time, as the Freedom Forum has struggled to make ends meet at the Newseum’s costly location on Pennsylvania Avenue. Just like me, tourists passed on paying $25 to visit a museum of journalism when there were so many free or nearly-free options around them.

But for me, the announcement was a stab to the heart, especially since so many cretins thought it was hilarious to tie the death of the Newseum to the supposed death of newspapers. I suppose there are actual parallels — people who refuse to pay for something eventually lose it, but a museum is one thing; the loss to the American public as they lose journalists and newspapers is incalculable, and they don’t even realize it.

I kept thinking of that moment, standing outside the Newseum in the rain and wishing for more time, more money. What if I had known it was my only chance, that within a few short years it would be shut down, passed on to Johns Hopkins, and its collection shunted to some warehouse where it will be loaned out to temporary exhibits?

Is this really necessary? I thought. Can’t some billionaire buy them a building somewhere? (Paging Jeff Bezos.) It doesn’t have to be on the Mall, it doesn’t have to be a stone’s throw from the White House. I wouldn’t care if it was in Scranton, Pennsylvania or Fresno, California or right here in St. Louis (which, by the way, would be fantastic).

There should be a Newseum, always. There should be a place where we go to remember how important journalism is to our democracy. If news is the first rough draft of history, then can there be anything more important to preserve for our understanding of our own national story?

I found myself moved almost to tears, and finally, I could not stand it any longer.

My semester ends next week.

Thanks to the internet, I can work from anywhere with wifi.

I have family in York, Pennsylvania, which is not close to Washington D.C…. but it’s in shouting distance.

I have frequent flyer miles.

I am going to the Newseum. Two weeks from today.

Elizabeth Donald

Written by

Journalist for more than 20 years, president of St. Louis SPJ, masters candidate/teaching assistant, freelance writer, editor, photographer, and fiction author.

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