A museum when done right should teach, inspire and evoke an emotional response. There are some museums whose content and themes are so inherently powerful they must rely on the absence of stimuli to evoke a response. Often some section of the museum is devoid of audio or descriptive copy. There is a four-story glass sculpture of freedom, or a pile of suitcases or a melted police car. The power of these selected image(s) can be breathtaking and utterly unnerving.
The Newseum (in Washington D.C.) has not a single quiet space. It is like the topic itself, unrelenting, riveting and compelling. Headlines, newsprint, broadcasts, artifacts and photographs form a cacophony of meta and micro information. “Oh right, THAT event! And how was it covered?” No stone is left unturned in answering the question. (Did you know a journalist created the FBI 10 Most Wanted list? See that!) The Pulitzer Prize Photography gallery is an embarrassment of riches. There are 70 years worth of stunning imagery to be admired and absorbed. Factoring in that the prize was offered in two categories beginning in 1968, that’s a lot of photos. It’s easy to become overwhelmed and mentally mutter “Nice” “Well done” in a monotonous tone. But something unexpected happens by the time you reach the 1960s-1970s section. A theme, spanning over 10 years, begins to develop, and a lump in the throat and pit of the stomach forms.
We’ve seen (most of) these photos over the years individually. The image of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald (Robert H. Jackson) has become part of how we talk about Kennedy’s assassination. We’ve all seen, and perhaps turned our heads, from the image of a naked child running from napalm (Huyhn Cong Ut) and of the Saigon execution (Edward T. Adams). We may recall the university campus gun violence (Kent State and Cornell.) But it is the (1967) photo of James Meredith (the first African-American student to attend the segregated University of Mississippi,) shot on a Mississippi road displayed in proximity to a photo of Ted Landsmark being attacked with the United States flag a full ten years later that is horrifying. And that is the point of this startling decade of American history. There was simply so much, so very much violence. Even the uplifting photos are a reminder of violence and sorrow. The unadulterated joy on the faces of Col. Robert L. Stirm’s family upon his return is a reminder of the heartbreak of Viet Nam soldiers Missing In Action. The war, the assassinations, the racism, the plight of the migrant workers and the violence; it’s all there in obscene excess in those 10 years.