There’s a two-story glass curtain inside the Newseum in Washington, D.C., and it’s etched with a name that holds weight in the history of Vancouver: Reid Blackburn, a photographer for The Columbian, who died in the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption.
Blackburn is a rare case of a Vancouverite whose name is in any museum in the country’s capital — but that’s changed because the Newseum is permanently closing today.
The memorial etched with Blackburn’s name will be disassembled and stored in a facility in suburban Maryland, but there’s hope to find a new home for the memorial to fallen journalists one day, said Patty Rhule, vice president of content and exhibits at the Newseum.
Fay Blackburn, Reid’s widow, had always wanted to visit the Newseum to see his name. But in November, when she learned it was closing, she realized she couldn’t make it, she said.
“I was saddened because I always thought I would get there someday and see the memorial,” she said. “It’s hard that the memorial to all those journalists, who put their lives on the line to give us the news, has not been able to be sustained. Society owes them a debt for bringing us the news.”
There are 24 glass panels in the two-story memorial, and 17 of those panels are etched with the names of 2,344 journalists who have died while reporting the news, Rhule said. Each glass panel weighs about 700 pounds, and the first name on the list is Elijah Lovejoy, killed in 1837. (Lovejoy, a journalist and editor, was shot by a pro-slavery mob while attempting to protect a new press at the Alton Observer in Alton, Ill.)
The Newseum, a museum dedicated to the news industry, will continue with the online version of the memorial, and sometime in 2020 it is planning a rededication ceremony to recognize journalists who died on the job in 2019, Rhule said.
“Part of the mission is to explain the important role that free press plays in our democracy,” Rhule said. “The press is increasingly under attack — economically because of digital (competition) and, also powerful people around the world are calling out journalists as fake news.
“We think it’s important to acknowledge what journalists face when going out into the world when reporting. Sometimes they pay the ultimate sacrifice. Not just reporters in war zones but also those who are singled out and killed.”
The exact location of the artifacts in storage isn’t publicized in an effort to prevent thefts, but some of the Newseum exhibits may land at various spots around the country.
The main reason for the Newseum’s closure was financial struggles, and part of the problem was its expensive location and building. Coupled with ticket prices at almost $25, it’s hard to compete with the free museums on the nearby National Mall. The Newseum building was sold in January to Johns Hopkins University for $372.5 million.
Reid Blackburn was among 57 people who died in the Mount St. Helens eruption, when the volcano exploded sideways after a massive landslide. He had set up cameras northwest of the mountain when it blew, and Blackburn fled to his car before super-heated ash and air caught him. Recovery crews found his body four days later.
The Newseum first opened in 1997 in Arlington, Va. In 2008, the Newseum relocated to its new building in downtown Washington, D.C., and Reid Blackburn’s name was etched on the curved memorial that towered above the Newseum guests.
Fay Blackburn said that there’s been many accolades given to Reid that will continue after the Newseum memorial comes down. A plaque on Mount St. Helens bears his name, and the National Press Photographers Foundation offers a scholarship in Blackburn’s honor. In 2019, Fay Blackburn, who retired from The Columbian in 2016 as editorial page assistant after 43 years, also gave one of Reid’s cameras to a time capsule in the Space Needle building. It will be opened in 2062.