Inside a one-story structure in a knot of North Laurel warehouses, the Newseum Support Center does business in low-profile fashion.
Don't, however, dismiss its lack of curb appeal. Within its walls is a rich and vibrant stash of artifacts that collectively retell journalism's quirky, melodramatic back story.
The facility, just south of Route 1 and Whiskey Bottom Road, functions as the go-to arm of the Newseum, the glassy and gleaming edifice midway between the White House and the Capitol. The Support Center is where centuries' worth of news, information and tangible remnants gleaned from the trenches are painstakingly archived. And it is where events that carve deep impressions are distilled into exquisitely wrought exhibits that dazzle the senses. The popular museum devotes its seven floors to tracking print and electronic news -- how a story is hatched, the way it is reported, written, edited and circulated to a waiting audience.
The towering main exterior wall is enshrined with words from the First Amendment. Since its move in 2008 from across the Potomac River in Arlington, Va., to much larger quarters in Washington, visitors have it all at their fingertips: galleries, theaters, retail shops and visitors services. (Coming in November: costumes and artifacts from the 2004 movie "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," starring Will Ferrell.) The Newseum's owner, The Freedom Forum, is a nonpartisan foundation whose mission is to promote the cause of "free speech, free press and free spirit for all people.
A significant part of the work required to fill the 250,000-square-foot facility in the district takes place behind the scenes, 20 miles up Interstate 95 in Laurel.
The North Laurel facility played a key role in the Newseum's latest exhibit unveiled in November. Called "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," it includes a treasure trove of costumes and props from the 2004 box-office smash starring Will Ferrell.
"The better part of things were constructed in the Support Center," said Carrie Christoffersen, the Newseum's curator and director of collections. "The bulk of it came apart, trucked down and reassembled."
The North Laurel location "is critical," Christoffersen said. "It's the center for all fabrication that goes on."
'You don't want to get it wrong'
Late on a Friday afternoon at the Support Center, library manager Rick Mastroianni was busy making sense of the media profession and the role the Newseum plays in adding perspective to the news — what one publisher famously labeled "the first rough draft of history."
By allowing intellectual drippings from the Fourth Estate to marinate, he was better equipped to do his job: to clarify the experience for the legion of visitors who descend daily in the news capital of the free world. It's a task, he declared, he never tires of.
"We all care deeply about the work we are doing," he said. "It's fun to do. It resonates with people, and it has all the ingredients of a great story."
Mastroianni explained his role in the gargantuan operation is to serve inside staff. A big chunk of his duties — one that regularly takes him downtown to sit in on writers' meetings — is to fact-check the information on the scripts that appear with exhibits. Unlike an editor on deadline who, at times, can catch and copy edit an error, applying the same process for an exhibit is a different animal.
"It's a very expensive process," Mastroianni said. "You don't want to get it wrong and have to redo it. ... We're conceptualizing what will go up in 2014, 2015. It depends on the scale and scope."
While the Support Center doesn't permit visitors, Mastroianni said he will field the occasional phone call from a documentary producer foraging for video footage. "I help them as I can, but generally I just steer them in the right direction," he said.
Beyond the carrels, in a nearby office space, Kathryn Wilmot, the curatorial specialist, carefully sorts out front pages of newspapers that document the April 15 bombing of the Boston Marathon. One headline, built in a giant font, screams out "Terror at the Finish Line." She tends to both the traditional print editions and the digital presentation.
"Each newspaper that comes in gets its own cataloging number," she said. "There's a big push to use primary sources." In an era in which news is churned out in a frenetic 24-hour news cycle, Wilmot also is required to keep abreast of the news summaries from CNN and other information providers. Going online and scouring the daily front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post also helps her infuse context into national and global events.
Wilmot tends to a collection that reaches back to 1493 with an important tome.
"It's called Incunabula, the Nuremberg Chronicle," she said. "It's basically the history of the world." The book was purchased at auction, but the lion's share of the Newseum's treasury comes from donations from the general public.
Hands down, she said, the most frequent questions she fields deal with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.