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Museum Math: Their Number Is Multiplying

Perhaps spurred by the success of the Guggenheim Bilbao, left, a local boom continues. Above, a rendering of the Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture courtyard.
Perhaps spurred by the success of the Guggenheim Bilbao, left, a local boom continues. Above, a rendering of the Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture courtyard. (Foster And Partners Via The Smithsonian Institution)

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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 7, 2007

Are you ready for the "America's Most Wanted" National Museum of Crime and Punishment? You might as well be.

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It could be one of the next splashes in Washington's museum splurge.

Since 2000, museums in the area have uncorked $1 billion for erecting new buildings and refurbishing old ones.

It's been an unprecedented building boom, expanding the sizes and types of museums, expanding choices for residents and tourists alike. And Washington is not alone. Museum fever has spread through the United States, as well as places from China to Dubai.

Close to home, the rush has included: the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, the Northern Virginia annex of the National Air and Space Museum; the National Museum of the Marine Corps, near Quantico; and the International Spy Museum, one of the anchors of the downtown cultural revival. (When it opens next March, the "Most Wanted" museum -- co-sponsored by the founder of the syndicated television show -- would be nearby at 575 Seventh St. NW.)

The most prominent facelift is the overhaul of the Old Patent Office Building, which contains two Smithsonian museums, American Art and the National Portrait Gallery.

The price tag for the retooled building, now called the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture: $346 million. That includes a $63 million courtyard and canopy that will be finished next month.

And the planners aren't done. Madame Tussauds, with a $16 million tally for all that wax, opens today in the old Woodward & Lothrop building.

On the drawing boards: another $1.7 billion of construction.

In some cases, crumbling buildings dictated an overhaul. In others, the audiences demanded extra amenities. In still others, a major donor created the crucial spark.

"One of the major things museums are concerned about right now is being competitive. It is a challenging time for museums because audiences' expectations are changing, a whole new generation is coming along and the museums have to keep their interest. It's tough," says Martha Morris, associate professor of museum studies at George Washington University and a 35-year veteran of museum work.

Then there's envy. When the Frank Gehry design for the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain became an international hit, museum trustees and city officials saw a lively, civilized way to attract people. Copycat cities have tried to emulate Bilbao's architecture-as-tourist-trap success.


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