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Correction to This Article
Anyone interested in doing research at the library of the Historical Society of Washington in the City Museum of Washington may work there despite the closure of the museum building. The library remains open to all interested researchers from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays. Articles about the closure of the City Museum of Washington in Style on Nov. 10 and in Metro on Nov. 29 incorrectly said that only scholars could work there.

A Last Day With Many First Visits

Closure of D.C.'s City Museum Draws Crowds the Exhibits Did Not

By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2004; Page B01

Hundreds of area residents came yesterday to the City Museum of Washington for a last glimpse of the exhibits that have drawn too few people to sustain the downtown institution since it opened last year.

Assistant floor manager Cora Moseley said more than 500 people had visited the museum in the ornate Carnegie Library building by midafternoon compared with fewer than 100 on a typical Sunday.


The City Museum of Washington, in the old Carnegie Library, drew 36,536 paying visitors in its first 15 months, far below projections, and lacked enough revenue. (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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Many said they came because they had heard the museum, which chronicled the social history of Washington, would close at the end of the day. It had failed to bring in enough revenue or secure sufficient public subsidies to build up programming or launch a marketing campaign.

Cheryl Ashton, 45, and her mother, Frances Garcia, 75, who live in the Northeast Washington neighborhood of Michigan Park, were among the visitors. Garcia, a native Washingtonian, had never been to the museum before her daughter brought her yesterday, but she said she had visited the building when it was the city's main public library.

"This was a beautiful library. Beautiful," Garcia said. "I would like to see it remain a museum."

Ware Adams, 37, of Capitol Hill called the closing "a shame. . . . It's one of the nicest buildings in D.C."

But the crowd could not mask the issues that led to the museum's closure. The Great Hall, which museum organizers never found a way to use for exhibits, seemed cavernous and empty. A George Washington University student and a friend visiting from London came to see the museum but left when they were told there was an entrance fee.

Several patrons who toured the exhibits said they had not known the museum existed until learning that it was about to close. Others said that although the museum presented some interesting information, it did not come close to telling the city's full story.

"I felt like maybe there were some pieces missing," said Nia West-Bey, 26, a graduate student who, with her husband, just bought a house in the Congress Heights section of Southeast Washington. "I wanted to learn more about our neighborhood . . . but it wasn't mentioned. . . . Voices are missing."

Museum organizers have said the main reason they failed was because the $20 million raised for the project went mostly to restore the Beaux-Arts building and create the museum. There was not enough left over, they said, to sustain programming.

Envisioned as a gateway into city neighborhoods for tourists and residents, the museum struggled to attract patrons, in part because it charged $5 admission in a city where most museums are free.

Although initial attendance projections ranged from 100,000 to 450,000 a year, the museum, which opened in May 2003, drew only 36,536 paying visitors in its first 15 months.

"I'm guilty myself because I go down to the Smithsonian most weekends," Ashton said.

A committee has formed to study ways to re-create the museum and reopen it. The building will continue to house the research library of the Washington Historical Society, which runs the museum, and will be open to scholars by appointment. It still will be available for rent as a function hall. Rentals have brought in far more money than museum admissions.

Moseley, 52, who has worked in the museum since it opened, now will lose her job. Museum officials have said the staff would shrink by 15 people.

Moseley said she has enjoyed watching group tours of the exhibit, especially the many schoolchildren who came.

"They learned so much. We had scavenger hunts," she said. "It's just so important for them to learn about the history of their city."

Denis and Ann Mackey came to the museum from Rockville, forgoing a trip to Eastern Market to attend the multimedia presentation about Washington history and walk through the few exhibit rooms.

The couple said they travel frequently to cities across the United States and overseas and always make a point of visiting local-history museums to get a feel for their surroundings. But they said they had never done so at home until yesterday.

"I didn't even really know about" the museum, Denis Mackey said.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company