Carrie Christoffersen, the Newseum’s new executive director, was part of the original team that opened the Newseum in 1997. Carrie has both a deep knowledge about the Newseum’s one-of-a-kind artifacts and a broad perspective about the evolution of museum curation. As curator of collections, Carrie managed and maintained all aspects of the Newseum’s permanent collection – including artifacts dating to 1255 BCE and print news items dating to 1493 CE. She has also been responsible for the planning and development of new exhibits, management of staff, working directly with Newseum visitors and more.
You’ve done a lot of different jobs here at the Newseum. What does one major in to get a job like yours?
I have a Master of Arts in American Studies from The George Washington University, with a concentration in Material Culture and Museum Studies, and a Bachelor of Arts in Art History and American Culture from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
You obviously have a passion for museums. Did any museums in particular play a role in inspiring you?
I visit museums everywhere I go, and have been for as long as I can remember. I love The Met, the National Museum of American History, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Mount Vernon, the list is almost endless. One of the museums that made an early and lasting impact on me is The Farmers’ Museum near where I grew up in upstate New York. It is a living history museum where you can encounter everything from a calf being born (I actually witnessed this once) to an early 19th century blacksmith shop. What I have carried with me about that museum is its ability to transport you to a moment in time and let you explore that place and time further. That is one of the things we aspire to do at the Newseum!
What is your favorite exhibit at the Newseum and why?
This is a little like asking a person to pick their favorite child, but I love the Berlin Wall exhibit! The story it tells about the triumph of freedom over oppression is enormously powerful. That message is instantaneously clear … the moment you move from the vibrant, art-filled side that faced West Berlin to the stark, blank, east-facing side. Beyond that, the exhibit is full of rich information, historic images and vibrant video all coming together to explain the compelling history of the Berlin Wall, from conception to collapse.
You’ve been with the Newseum now for 21-plus years! How is the world a different place now than when you started in 1997?
Technology is the short answer. I got my first EVER email address when I came to the Newseum. I did not have a cell phone when I started. The internet was in its infancy as a commonly used service by the general public. But the critical changes are how technology has altered the way we interact, learn, work — and experience museums.
Since you’ve joined the Curators Committee for Traveling Exhibitions for the American Alliance of Museums, I’m curious if that’s something you see the Newseum doing more of?
Absolutely! Our traveling exhibits program is one of the best ways we are able to reach out and share what we do at the Newseum with a wider community. We have more ideas here than we have exhibits space, so we are always rotating exhibits at the Newseum, usually opening two to three a year. We would like to take every reasonable chance to send those exhibits and the incredible stories they bring to life through historic images, powerful artifacts and compelling video on the road.
I’m sure there may be some out there who want to know what sort of skills it takes to lead a museum. Any thoughts?
I could offer some pretty usual advice about educational pursuits and experience pathways, but in truth the most important skills are people skills. In essence the ability to play well with others. Which to me boils down to respecting everyone and the role they fill in the organization. Communicating openly and often. Being consistent about our goals and strategies.
What are you and your team at the Newseum working on now?
Of course, we always have a lot happening at the Newseum. On Sept. 21, a sculpture of Alice Allison Dunnigan, the first African American woman to receive press credentials to cover the White House and Congress, will go on display at the Newseum. There has been a really nice response to that announcement and I’ve been doing interviews with journalists from all over the country about it. Another thing we’re working on for this fall is a revamping of one of the cases in our News Corp News History gallery — the heart of the Newseum exhibits — where we will examine the digital disruption the news media has been undergoing. That exhibit reflects the massive changes in the way news is reported and consumed. Longer range, we are developing “Rise Up: Stonewall and the LGBTQ Rights Movement.” It explores the modern LGBTQ rights movement in the United States, and will mark the 50th anniversary of a June 1969 police raid of the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village.