Updated: Dec 11, 2019
This section of the museum is dedicated to the history of journalism but is not told in a clear, chronological fashion but instead thematically. Photo by Mikkaela Bailey at the Newseum
My visit to the Newseum this week was a little disappointing for a number of reasons, but it was mostly due to the strange curation choices I found. The mission of the Newseum can be found on the “About” page of their website: “The mission of the Newseum, located in Washington, D.C., is to increase public understanding of the importance of a free press and the First Amendment. Visitors experience the story of news, the role of a free press in major events in history, and how the core freedoms of the First Amendment — religion, speech, press, assembly and petition — apply to their lives.”
What you actually experience at the Newseum is much more, and all I can really say in this case is that less is more.
Image of the inkwell and pipe display with caption explaining Twain's response to being caught faking news. Photo by Mikkaela Bailey at the Newseum
The object I chose to examine for this new segment on my blog, “Curious Curation,” is Mark Twain’s pipe and inkwell. These items are at the Newseum on loan from the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, CT. Twain was famous for his literature, especially works like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. What many people may not realize about Twain is his career as a writer began when he worked as a reporter under his real name, Samuel Clemens.
This item is displayed at the end of the 5th floor News History Exhibit in the case titled, “Sex! Crime! Scandal!” and it is featured next to several news scandals.
OJ Simpson’s suit and several tabloids surround this item in the display case at the very end of the exhibit. It would be pretty easy to miss if you weren’t looking closely at the case.
This display case has no unifying chronological element, but attempts to connect news writing scandals to scandals in the news and media as entertainment rather than information. Photo by Mikkaela Bailey at the Newseum
The context of this display case is supposed to be the sensationalization of the news and how news outlets have either capitalized on scandals (like bringing cameras into the courtroom for the OJ trial) or how some outlets have fabricated news stories to increase circulation (like the 1835 newspaper headline about creatures on the moon). Also in the case, you can find some tabloids and highlights of the OJ Simpson trial and events leading up to it.
So what does Mark Twain have in common with OJ Simpson and Jerry Seinfeld?
Well, this display claims that Twain wrote fabricated stories out of laziness rather than out of a desire to sell papers or grow his readership.
The Jerry Seinfeld quote is unsettling to me because it is a joke taken out of context, implying that Mark Twain was a liar and sensationalist when he is best known as a great American author. Photo by Mikkaela Bailey at the Newseum
Among other concerns, this makes me wonder why Mark Twain’s pipe and inkwell are in the same display case with these other items. Above the Twain items is a quote by Jerry Seinfeld about tabloid readers, and above that are some famous tabloid headlines and the Civil War era sensational stories, which were contemporary with Twain. While those stories share a timeline with Twain, nothing else in the case shares a strong thematic connection. There are no examples of Twain’s fabricated stories or contexts for when he wrote them, aside from alleging that he wrote them during his time at the Nevada-based paper Territorial Enterprise. I think this misrepresents one of America’s treasured authors and his intentions toward his work. Twain worked for many newspaper companies and this work as a reporter was the springboard for his career as an author.
Moreover, I think the context of scandal is difficult to put together in this display because it compares deliberate deception on the part of news outlets with the tensions media outlets face when celebrities are the story. OJ’s trial was a certainly a historic event and it did cause a media frenzy, but I don’t think it’s quite the same as tabloids creating false narratives.
But, Mark Twain didn’t start a media frenzy with his celebrity because he was not yet famous. Twain’s stories were fabricated, but were they sensational or believable? I think for a newspaper to print those stories, it would either be fabricating news (which was unconfirmed in the exhibit) or the editors would have been unaware of the deception. In addition, I think the context of tabloid-writing, there should be a distinction between the idea that lies sell papers because of fake scandals, while other outlets make money and capitalize on sensational events that really happened.
While I think the contextualization of tabloids and false news stories deserves to be featured somewhere in the museum, I don’t think there is a particular relevance between tabloids and the first amendment in the display nor the larger exhibit. Especially in this type of display case, I think it’s important that items displayed be relevant to the mission of the museum rather than superfluous “interest” pieces that are more reminiscent of an aisle cap in a grocery store featuring a weekly special.
While Mark Twain and his possessions are certainly recognizable, I don’t think the history of tabloid papers and their roots in bad news practices are particularly relevant to Twain without better context, and I think they are certainly in a different category than the OJ Simpson trial.