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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)

Washington's recent boom hasn't had the signature architecture, though people praise the striking limestone envelope of the National Museum of the American Indian. And two internationally known architects are connected to future projects. Moshe Safdie has been hired to do a national health museum off Independence Avenue SW, and C.C. Pei is signed to do a slavery museum in Fredericksburg.

"The building is the container for the collections. It is a place that can provide interest, dramatic spaces, comfort and a safe place to take your family," Morris says.

All of this expansion erupted while museum attendance sagged at many museums. And fundraising was unpredictable. The Corcoran Gallery of Art hired Gehry to build a swoopy addition. The plan electrified local art and architecture lovers, but the money never arrived.

A 2006 survey by the American Association of Museums found half of the respondents reported they had begun or recently completed an expansion.

Elaine Heumann Gurian, a veteran museum consultant who was deputy director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and helped plan the Indian museum, says: "The expansion of the museums and their relation to tourist dollars is a worldwide phenomenon. In the Arab Middle East, there is a huge amount of museum building going on. Part of it is wanting to be on the world stage for something other than their assets."

In Washington, politics as well as passion have played a role. Things happen thanks to "elected officials working as angels, and wanting to right wrongs. The Holocaust Museum was angeled by [Illinois congressman] Sid Yates, the American Indian museum had Hawaii Senator [Daniel] Inouye. With the African American Museum, it was the black caucus and [Georgia Rep.] John Lewis's lifelong dream. They all had people who have passion but also considerable power in the government," says Gurian.

Washington is also the headquarters of many trade associations, and that gives those groups a unique opportunity for a showcase right in the capital. "The National Academy of Sciences has the Koshland Science Museum. The Spy Museum is surrounded by the FBI and the national security folks, and they reinforce one another," says Neil Kotler, a former Smithsonian official who heads Kotler Museum and Cultural Marketing Consultants.

Since Washington is a news capital, it is not surprising that the Newseum is opening a new building here next year on prime property on Pennsylvania Avenue. The giant screens behind its glass front will dominate that section of the avenue.

And the Smithsonian, the world's largest museum complex, is sprucing up its properties on the Mall. The National Museum of American History is expected to finish the redesign of its central corridor and reopen in summer of 2008, after spending $85 million. The National Museum of Natural History will open a new, $49 million Ocean Hall next year.

Though tourism has rebounded from the decline after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the question remains whether the area can sustain all these attractions.

Gurian believes the mass of Washington museums may be too much for the average tourist. "My belief is that people are being way too optimistic about what is known as the stay-length. People coming to Washington do not have infinite and expandable time. They have a finite vacation," she says.

Kotler, the museum consultant, believes the metropolitan area has enough residents and tourists to keep the museums and their new buildings going. The resident population stretches to include Baltimore and 8 million people. "That encourages the building of museums," Kotler says. The trend will continue "if our roads can handle it, if our tour buses can handle it," he says.

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