On many days, the halls of the City Museum of Washington are empty.
Few people have found it in its first 14 months, though it sits regally at the intersection of Massachusetts and New York avenues NW, just north of Gallery Place and Penn Quarter, two of the city's hottest destinations for entertainment. It is also directly across from the mammoth Washington Convention Center, which had about a million customers in its first year. The convention crowds were supposed to spill over into the museum, a place that tells a different story from the rest of the city's attractions.
The idea was to explain the people and history of Washington, with emphasis on the communities outside the granite and marble buildings that symbolize the city for most Americans. The initial fundraising was spearheaded by many of Washington's best-known philanthropic families, including the Smalls, Kiplingers, Cafritzes and Carrs, which gave $1 million each. The Hechinger and Graham families also made sizable contributions. There was additional support from Congress and the D.C. government.
But organizers now say they seriously overestimated attendance.
When the museum opened in May 2003, its founders predicted it would draw 100,000 to 300,000 people the first year. One estimate, contained in a marketing feasibility study by PKF Consulting of Alexandria, suggested attendance could hit 450,000.
So far, only 33,000 people have visited the museum.
In a city of internationally known museums, the optimistic predictions didn't seem impossible. The National Air and Space Museum, the most visited museum in the world, attracted more than 9 million visitors last year. Since it opened in the summer of 2003, the International Spy Museum has brought in 1 million customers, despite a $13 admission fee.
The City Museum decided to support itself by selling tickets ($5 for adults). That makes the empty galleries an acute problem. Admissions have brought in only $78,000, in part because the museum didn't charge during its opening days and also because many visitors got school and other group discounts. Instead, the museum is making most of its money renting out its halls for special events. That has brought in $415,000, and with aggressive marketing, the administrators predict, could bring in at least $1 million a year.
That won't cover the annual budget of $2 million, and the museum has been forced to cut its staff from 26 to 20. At the same time the workload -- principally finding new ways to attract people -- is increasing.
Now the museum is going back to the drawing board. Among other things, it is considering asking the city for $1 million a year.
A number of the founders and board members, including some of the original donors, have formed a planning committee to look for ways to attract more visitors, raise more money and tell a better story about the history of Washington.
"As one who has promoted this idea, I am concerned that people are concerned. I think there is alarm, but people want it to work," said Kathryn S. Smith, president of Cultural Tourism D.C.
Julie Rogers, president of the Meyer Foundation, which was a substantial contributor to the museum, says she is still behind the effort. "I think the vision was, and still is, to have a place that visitors from the region, country and world would come to and get an exciting introduction of the city. Then they would be led out into other aspects of the city. Thus far it has not met that promise."
The museum is in one of Washington's classic buildings, once the city's main library. Generations of Washingtonians went in and out of its imposing doors. Inside are shows that trace 200 years of major events and people in the city's history. The introductory exhibition contains a splashy floor map where a visitor can find his or her house, school or hotel.
There's an exhibition of rare prints and maps, and temporary shows on the construction of the World War II Memorial and the history of two neighborhoods, Chinatown and Mount Vernon Square. The facility includes a theater, education rooms including an archaeology laboratory, and the research library of the Historical Society of Washington. The private group, a low-key scholarly outfit that has been the keeper of the city's political and cultural records since 1894, created the museum.
Though the enterprise is a private effort, Congress gave the museum $2 million in 1999 to help upgrade the building and contributed an additional $1.7 million for programs. The city agreed to lease the library to the museum for $1 per year for 99 years, and has committed $750,000 in emergency funds to help it through this shaky period.
What went wrong?
The museum started out with what appeared to be a healthy bank account -- $20 million. But much of that was consumed in renovating the 1902 Carnegie Library building. Construction costs continued to eat away at the budget even after the place opened.
"Our basic challenge was, $20 million was not enough. We were under-funded, we remain under-funded, and we opened prematurely," said Thornell K. Page, a former University of the District of Columbia official and co-chairman of the planning group.
Members of the planning group cite another miscalculation. They now say they put too much faith in the notion that convention-goers would cross the street to learn about the history of the District. The Convention Center draws lots of people, of course. But most are on the job. If they can squeeze in any sightseeing, they appear to be more likely to choose the famous attractions on the Mall. And because Washington's most famous attractions are free, visitors are less likely to want to pay an admission fee than they might be in another city.
Charging for admission turned out to be a huge problem.
"The business model that people would pay a fee was flawed, given the material inside," said Rogers, who was instrumental in getting the Meyer Foundation to contribute $500,000 to the capital campaign. It has since given an additional $75,000.
The museum's business model had other flaws. In an interview, Shireen Dodson, the museum's interim president and a former comptroller and administrator at the Smithsonian, said the budget was based on a more modest estimate of visitors -- 100,000 a year. But even if that level had been achieved, it wouldn't have brought in the kind of money the museum needs.
"It was not self-sustaining," she said.
The museum staff didn't have enough money for a marketing plan after the initial, eye-catching ads in the subway (which were free). The marketing effort had another setback in September. Banners directing people to the museum were blown to shreds by Hurricane Isabel, and the budget allowed only a few to be replaced.
Money wasn't the only problem. The exhibits are fairly traditional. There aren't any blockbuster items on display. Newer museums across the country are relying more and more on the kind of interactive experience that the computer generation enjoys, but the City Museum didn't have money for that. Immersing the visitor in the experience is the growing preference. Staring through glass boxes is becoming an extinct practice.
Then there's the question of whether visitors from Cleveland are any more interested in the story of Washington than Washingtonians would be in the story of Cleveland.
Many visitors said they felt disconnected and confused about the storytelling in the museum.
"I think it falls short in the overall experience. The Great Hall should look and feel like the city's living room. When you walk in you should know what the museum is about. Right now it is an empty cavern. It is not done," Dodson said.
The museum hired Petr Productions, a Washington-based consulting firm that has advised the Spy Museum and a proposed music museum, to develop a 12-month strategic plan. The results haven't been made public yet. But museum administrators said that anecdotal feedback shows only 65 to 75 percent of visitors are satisfied. "They said if you are not at an 85 percent satisfaction rate, you are a failure," Dodson said.
Dodson has also done an informal survey that proved discouraging: Only 50 percent of the cabbies she talked to had heard of the City Museum.
The museum also had to cope with the loss of Barbara Franco, the founding director, who was hired by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission last year. Reached in Harrisburg, Franco said the people planning the museum, including herself, should have conducted more research on the admissions decision. "We should have tested it out a lot more. We didn't see the resistance by the local audience."
But she argues that the estimates of visitors, provided by feasibility studies, weren't "crazy and out of there. There were good expectations." A spokesman for PKF Consulting was not available for comment.
Dodson said, "All the estimates of visitorship, all of that work, was done prior to 9/11 and prior to the anthrax scare." The final report was delivered just weeks after the terrorist attacks. She argues that by the time the museum opened, things were still sluggish for most of the region's museums and hotels.
This spring saw the first solid and sustained increase in tourism since the 2001 attacks. Recently the Smithsonian reported that visitor numbers, especially school groups and families, were bouncing back; there was a 27 percent increase in sales at the gift shops and restaurants in May and a 23 percent increase in June, compared with a year earlier. The City Museum has seen business slow in the past two months compared to previous months.
"What we first have to talk about is the mission and agree on what is it we are trying to do," said publisher Austin H. Kiplinger. His family's foundation, whose name the museum's library bears, helped digitize the library's holdings and has helped pay the salary of one of the curators.
He says the story of Washington's history is limitless and complicated. The board hasn't agreed on how to revamp the way it's told. "We still have different views. What Washington are we talking about? Is it geographic? Is it 4.5 million people? Some people are focusing on the 70-some miles of the District. Others are talking about the whole region," Kiplinger said.
Camille Riggs Mosley, a consultant and member of the museum's board, says the repositioning should reflect that there are many Washingtons and many experiences to tell: "That is the challenge with everything we try to do. Nothing that is done in Washington serves all people. Washington is political, Washington is black, Washington is wealthy, Washington is emerging Hispanic. There is not only one Washington."
The original idea was to make the museum a starting point for touring a city that most visitors don't see -- the Washington beyond the Mall. And the hope was that people at the convention center would fill up the City Museum's halls and become interested enough to visit some of the city's neighborhoods.
"We need to be a gateway. I think it is a place where the visitor can say, 'I have been to Washington for the sixth time,' or 'I have Aunt Tillie for the third time, and I am tired of Air and Space. Where can I go that has a feeling of Washington and find out where I can go?' " Smith said.
So far that hasn't happened. Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations and a forceful voice in the development of a vibrant downtown, said the lack of support "has left us with a huge problem at the doorway to the city. They had to be a nonprofit in a competitive world. They have to be as business-savvy as the for-profit."
Now the working group is drawing up a list of new directions, which it could present to the museum's board as early as this week.
The ideas include generating money from a full-service restaurant and an annual appropriation from the city.
"We need a dedicated line item in the city budget," said James G. Banks, a longtime housing expert and one of the original board members. The museum's special status as the keeper of the city's story and the archives of the Historical Society should merit financial support from the District, its supporters say.
If the museum won guaranteed city funding, Page said, it could eliminate the admission charges. "But even if it was free," he noted, "you still must be attractive."