Smithsonian Institution has record year in 2009, with 30 million visits

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 7, 2010

A full year of open doors at the National Museum of American History, combined with a robust bump from the crowds in Washington for the inauguration, brought a record number of visits to the Smithsonian in 2009.

Last year, according to numbers released this week by the Smithsonian, the institution's 19 facilities received 30 million visits. The last time the Smithsonian counted that many was in 2000 and 2001, when methods of counting varied by venue and results were often disputed. Now, according to the Smithsonian, figures are more reliable, as all venues count attendance as patrons exit.

Understandably satisfied with the year's outcome, the Smithsonian is offering only educated guesses as to the reasons. "We definitely had increased numbers because of the inauguration and American History reopening for a full year. And then we kept the big three museums on the Mall open until 7:30 p.m. the entire summer," said Linda St. Thomas, the chief spokeswoman for the Smithsonian, referring to the American History, Natural History and Air and Space museums. "Then there was 'Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian,' and people would come and ask visitor services, 'Where is the real thing? I just saw the movie.' We know it had an effect."

The American History Museum had been closed for two years for renovation of its central core and the addition of a gallery for the Star-Spangled Banner. In 2005, the last full year the museum was open before 2009, it had 3 million visits. In 2009, it registered 4.4 million. There have been long lines outside the exhibition of the first ladies' gowns, and the museum is planning an expansion of this attraction.

Most Januarys are slow months. But in January 2009, with record numbers of people attending events around the swearing-in of Barack Obama, the Smithsonian was packed. January visits usually total about 990,000; last year there were 1.8 million. On Jan. 20, according to the Smithsonian, 330,094 were counted, the largest single-day attendance of the year. The day before had 232,510 visits. Other banner days included Easter Saturday, with 258,025; 240,988 on July Fourth; and 213,780 on the day after Thanksgiving, ordinarily the busiest day of the year.

Another traditionally busy time is the Cherry Blossom Festival. Last April the Smithsonian had attendance of 3.8 million, an increase of 1.1 million over 2008.

The second installment of the "Night at the Museum" franchise, released in May, was a farce about items in the Smithsonian coming alive. The stars included Ben Stiller, Amy Adams, Hank Azaria and Robin Williams. Some of the scenes were filmed inside the National Air and Space Museum, a first for a commercial film, which was heavily promoted with a number of tie-ins to Smithsonian artifacts.

The museum with the most visits in 2009 was the National Museum of Natural History, with 7.4 million. In 2008 it had 7 million, a surge prompted in part by an ongoing celebration of the 50th anniversary of the display of the Hope Diamond, according to St. Thomas. It also has a popular Imax theater and permanent exhibitions -- such as Sant Ocean Hall -- that attract all ages. The Air and Space Museum, the other perennial favorite, boasted 7 million visits for the second year in a row.

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