It was cold and windy at 4 a.m. Wednesday when Lamar Liddell arrived at the entrance to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Wearing only a long-sleeve T-shirt, he waited five hours for a chance to get inside.
“This is a great opportunity for us to take a look at our heritage,” said Liddell, who traveled from Greenwood, Miss., and was first in line. “To see this much African American memorabilia in one place, you got to go.”
Rita Guzman took her place at 7:30, about 100 people from the front. The San Diego resident choked up when describing her need to learn African American history so she can teach her 9-year-old granddaughter, who is biracial. “Black people are the foundation of our country, and we need to know what they went through,” she said. “We never learned about black history, about slavery. I want to learn so I can pass it on to her.”
Just after 9, Liddell, Guzman and several hundred others had passes in hand.
But others were turned away.
That’s been the story since the 19th Smithsonian museum opened its doors Sept. 24. More people want to get in than can be accommodated, even though timed passes are being used to manage the crowds. In the museum’s first 10 days, some 103,000 people visited the history, culture and community exhibitions, officials said. It’s unclear how many more were unable to get passes.
Before its opening, the museum distributed 705,000 passes for admission through Dec. 31. The next set of passes — covering January through March — was supposed to be distributed beginning this past Monday, but technical difficulties with the ticket vendor forced the museum to abandon that plan.
On Wednesday at 9 a.m., the museum tried again, and problems continued. People ordering online were forced into a virtual queue because of high demand. In some cases, the wait lasted longer than 10 minutes; others report that they were kicked out of the line, only to find no passes left when they returned. The phone numbers did not work at all.
Weekend passes for January were snapped up within a half-hour. All weekend passes were gone within two hours.
The timed passes, in 15-minute increments, are being used to regulate crowds and reduce wait times at the entrance. More weekday passes are being distributed than tickets for weekends because the number of no-shows is greater during the week, Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said. The Smithsonian declined to say how many passes were being released each day, although St. Thomas said the total number for January through March is in the same range as the first three months.
Crowds have been a problem. “Choke points” at the entrance to the history galleries and near some exhibits, including Emmett Till’s casket, are slowing the flow of visitors, St. Thomas said.
The museum needs time to track visitor behavior, but anecdotal evidence shows that guests are staying as long as six hours — three times the normal “dwell time” for a museum — and that is part of the reason for the crowds.
“This is unprecedented,” St. Thomas said, noting that the museum is making changes daily. “We have to make sure the visitor experience matches their expectations. We’re learning every day.”
The average attendance of 10,000 a day for the first week and a half is significantly less than other Smithsonian museums. On a busy day, for example, the National Air and Space Museum can attract 19,000 visitors. But Smithsonian officials are being conservative in releasing advance passes as they learn how visitors react to the new building, St. Thomas said
Demand for the same-day passes is also surprising. Officials say people have been queuing up between 4 and 6 a.m. each day.
On Wednesday morning, Alonita Vannoy of Manassas, Va., and Elizabeth Lyon of Springfield, Ore., were rewarded with afternoon passes. Vannoy is a charter member of the museum, but she skipped the opening ceremonies because her friend Lyon was coming this week. The women met in 1967, when, as high-schoolers, they spent part of the summer at a humanities program at Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C. They renewed their friendship via phone and messages several years ago, but the “soul sisters” reunited in person for the first time in almost 50 years this week. The visit to the museum is a highlight of their vacation, they said.
“I hope it will soothe some of the hostile feelings and racial tensions,” Vannoy said. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but I’m very optimistic it will.”
“This trip is all about the need for healing,” Lyon said. “My ancestors were slave owners in North Carolina. I don’t know if it’s in the history books now, but it wasn’t when I was in school. My journey is to try to help heal the terrible wounds.”