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The Smithsonian's Concession to the Bottom Line

Museums Cash In With Food, Shops

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 13, 2005; Page A01

Spring is a beautiful thing for those who run the Smithsonian. School breaks and cherry blossoms mean tourists -- and their money. "This is prime time for us now," says Linda St. Thomas, a Smithsonian spokeswoman. "You can see the out-of-town buses lined up on Jefferson Drive from the Castle all the way to the American Indian Museum."

All those kids pouring into the museums are important to the Smithsonian because the Mall is increasingly becoming a mall.


The Smithsonian prices some items to attract kids with a few bucks to spend. (Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

Although admission to the museums is still free, the sales of movie tickets, food and trinkets is soaring. Last year such marketing ventures grossed $156.3 million, returning $26.7 million in profit to the museums -- nearly half the Smithsonian's unrestricted funds, to be spent any way it pleases.

Marketing has become so important that the Smithsonian now knows from surveys that the kids in the school groups that fly through the National Air and Space Museum each have about $5 to $10, and just about that many minutes to spend them. That's why the gift shop at the world's most visited museum is stocked with budget-friendly items such as military dog tags and marbles designed to look like planets. That's why last year 200,000 packs of freeze-dried astronaut ice cream were sold.

There is now a McDonald's at Air and Space, and a Subway at the National Museum of American History. Signs at the two Imax theaters on the Mall list each other's showtimes so visitors can arrange their schedules accordingly.

Then there is the shopping.

The new National Museum of the American Indian has two stores prominently located in view of the grand entrance. Recently a visitor there bought a $55,000 sculpture by Allan Houser. The food court features regional dishes from areas with Native American populations.

In the National Museum of Natural History, there are six shops. Some are directly connected to permanent exhibitions, such as one on mammals; others are open for the duration of a particular show. A small one selling botanical prints, mugs, magnets and silk flowers for the orchids show will close May 1. To entice visitors to a new show on pearls, the main store has set up a large case with pearl items, including a photo album embossed with mother-of-pearl.

All methods of getting the visitor into a store and sending him home with a loaded shopping bag are being tested. This is not unusual in modern museums, which are giving visitors what they demand -- a full one-stop experience with restaurants and shopping. The new Museum of Modern Art in New York has three restaurants and two stores. The Louvre has eight restaurants and cafes, as well as shops for its reproductions and books.

The Smithsonian has always had the potential of being a high-volume shopping and eating destination. Its museums had 20 million visitors last year; 220,000 people shopped its catalogue and 62,000 made purchases online. Patrons can pick from 18 museums, all with different personalities, that scramble to hook visitors.

But it wasn't until 1999 that the Smithsonian placed all of its profit sectors within a division called Smithsonian Business Ventures. It now provides almost half of the $50 million to $60 million in the Smithsonian's unrestricted account that can be directed anywhere. The rest comes from interest income and private contributions.

"The 2004 figures showed sales from museum businesses and concessions have recovered to the level before 9/11," says Gary Beer, CEO of the business arm, who joined the Smithsonian in 1999 from the Sundance Group. The tourist return continues. Last month, the Smithsonian museums saw a 64 percent increase in visitors from the previous March.

The post-terrorism shock, however, was profound. "The decline in advertising at [Smithsonian] magazine at the same time we lost 40 percent of our visitors was unmatched," he says. "We had to maintain revenue and do what we could to cut expenses." Beer had to lay off 100 employees, reduce hours in some shops, postpone physical improvements, eliminate automatic cost-of-living raises and outsource some routine jobs. Only now is it launching new ventures such as an agreement with HarperCollins to publish reference books and adult nonfiction.

This focus on business doesn't sit well with all of the Smithsonian's huge scholarly staff. Over the years these critics have objected to commercialization, from naming halls and theaters after donors to bringing in vendors such as McDonald's. They say the emphasis on enterprise is at odds with the Smithsonian's culture of collecting and preserving the nation's stories and accomplishments. Branding -- putting the Smithsonian's name on items -- to them is more akin to marketing J.Lo's perfume than preserving a dinosaur.


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