Capitol Visitor Center: A Travesty and a Triumph

By Raw Fisher
Tuesday, December 2, 2008

From Marc Fisher's blog, Raw Fisher

I had very low expectations for the Capitol Visitor Center. Even before the huge cost overruns and mind-numbing construction delays, even before we learned that a giant holding pen for tourists was going to cost more than Washington's new baseball stadium, the idea of funneling visitors away from the glorious outdoor view of the Capitol and into a marble-clad tunnel only fed my cynicism about big federal projects.

Four years and a stunning $400 million in extra costs later, the center -- a vast underground network of tunnels, meeting rooms, exhibition halls, eateries and security barriers -- opens today.

As a public works project and an expenditure of the taxpayers' money, the Visitor Center is an obscenity. The watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste called it "among the most wasteful examples of botched construction projects ever promulgated by the federal government." The center is going to cost us more than $620 million.

But as a station on the Washington tourist circuit, as a museum of American civics, and as a demonstration of how to blend education and entertainment without insulting the intelligence of the citizenry, the Visitor Center is a smash hit -- the best addition to the District's tourism portfolio since the 1990s, which gave us the FDR Memorial and the Holocaust museum.

After too many recent experiences with empty, ahistorical and timid attractions such as the World War II memorial, the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian and last month's remake of the National Museum of American History, Washington needed a winner on the culture front. Now it has one.

The Visitor Center feels almost forbiddingly vast and cavernous. The main room, Emancipation Hall, looks more like New York's Grand Central Terminal than it does a museum.

But if you can look past the ocean of dollars it took to make this place, you'll see that here, content is king. The publicity about the center focuses on the big hall and its statuary and amenities, but the main exhibition, "Out of Many, One," is a rich collection of documents, doodads and well-considered visuals that tell a story that is missing from so many of our country's classrooms. Here, visitors learn how a bill becomes a law, what members of Congress really do, how the Capitol came to be, and how Washington the city evolved.

In contrast especially to the American History and American Indian museums, which seem to have been designed in mortal fear of timelines, details and the power of narrative, this story of Congress, though inevitably self-serving, is often compelling.

Stroll along a series of models to see how Capitol Hill developed from farmland to seat of government to the urban village it is today. Watch kids become totally entranced by the exhibit's centerpiece, a please-touch, architecturally correct scale model of the Capitol Dome that will require an army of Windex-wielding janitors to keep clean.

A table from Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration stands opposite a photograph of that ceremony, and though it isn't marked, you can see his future assassin, John Wilkes Booth, standing just a few rows up from the president.

Contrary to early concerns that the Visitor Center was intended to siphon tourists away from the Capitol itself, the exhibition space funnels you into the real thing. Indeed, you need a ticket for a Capitol tour to get into the introductory film.

Could the nation have done without this underground extravaganza, its 530-seat restaurant, the preposterous security overkill, the mind-boggling expense? Sure. (Sixty thousand truckloads of dirt were hauled from the site to create the hole that the Visitor Center has filled.) But the result is an aesthetic boost to the Capitol campus. Gone are the parking lots and trash transfer station that littered the East Front, replaced by a park setting based on Frederick Law Olmsted's original plan for the Capitol grounds.

More important, the Visitor Center sends a signal to the city's cultural and political leadership that meaty content can still succeed and that there are new and effective ways to educate citizens who grow up with only the slightest whiff of civics in their schooling.

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