African Amer­i­can Mu­seum crowds are ex­pected to get even big­ger

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PEGGY MCGLONE

If you think you can wait a few months to avoid the long lines and crowded gal­leries at the Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture, you’ll need a new strat­egy. Those lines aren’t dis­ap­pear­ing any­time soon.

“I don’t see the lines get­ting any shorter,” Found­ing Di­rec­tor Lon­nie Bunch said in an in­ter­view, days be­fore the mu­seum marked its six-month an­niver­sary. “I don’t think we’re go­ing to have those mo­ments when I can bounce a bas­ket­ball through the mu­seum — at least not for the next three or four or five years.”

In­ter­est in the long-awaited mu­seum shows no sign of de­cline. In its first six months, the $540 mil­lion, 400,000-square-foot struc­ture on the Mall has wel­comed 1,211,563 vis­i­tors, plac­ing it among the four most-pop­u­lar Smith­so­nian mu­se­ums. At­ten­dance is well short of pre-open­ing pre­dic­tions of 3 mil­lion to 3.5 mil­lion vis­i­tors a year, but the peak sea­sons of spring break and sum­mer are still ahead.

And that means crowds grow, Bunch said.

“Part of the chal­lenge with a new build­ing is you have to fig­ure out how it works,” he said. Of­fi­cials pro­jected guests would spend three hours — twice as long as a typ­i­cal Smith­so­nian visit — but they are stay­ing up to six hours.

The mu­seum’s de­sign has also caused choke-points. For ex­am­ple, the in­ten­tion­ally cramped en­trance to the slav­ery sec­tion on the low­est level can’t han­dle the num­ber of peo­ple who can fit into the mas­sive el­e­va­tor that fer­ries guests be­low ground. Mu­seum of­fi­cials have de­cided to not fill the el­e­va­tor to ca­pac­ity, which causes lines at the el­e­va­tor two lev­els above.

Bunch says they pre­dicted vis­i­tors get­ting off the el­e­va­tor would move more briskly through the area or push beyond the crowds. “But here, peo­ple are stop­ping and read­ing,” he said.

They have de­cided to have vis­i­tors wait to get into the space rather than have it be­come so crowded that it be­comes an un­pleas­ant ex­pe­ri­ence. “There’s not much bitch­ing,” Bunch said. “There’s a sense of ‘I re­ally want to see it.’ ”

Mu­seum coun­cil mem­ber Patty Stone­sifer said ac­cess re­mains the will lead­er­ship’s pri­or­ity. “The biggest wish we all have is that it would be eas­ier to come and go [with­out] the wor­ries about plan­ning ahead, and tick­ets and lines,” she said.

Con­tribut­ing to those wor­ries are the prob­lem­atic re­lease of ad­vance timed passes, which have caused headaches when de­mand over­whelms the mu­seum’s web­site. Bunch said he “pitched a fit” when tech­ni­cal prob­lems arose again in Fe­bru­ary, after ear­lier trou­bles in the fall.

“I said, ‘I’m not do­ing this. You know what I think about passes. Make it work,’ ” he re­called. But this month’s re­lease of June passes went smoothly, he said, giv­ing him con­fi­dence that “we now have a sys­tem that will work.”

Bunch said he will as­sess the con­tin­ued use of passes after Septem­ber, when the mu­seum has been open for a year.

“Maybe we can just do passes for large groups,” he said, not­ing that of­fi­cials are look­ing at op­tions. “I was never the biggest fan of timed passes, so as soon as I can fig­ure out other al­ter­na­tives, it’s gone.”

Bunch has re­ceived lots of opin­ions about the mu­seum’s in­au­gu­ral ex­hi­bi­tions, es­pe­cially from vis­i­tors who feel slighted. They ask for more fo­cus on sci­en­tists, more black ar­chi­tects, more black car­di­ol­o­gists, he said. In ad­di­tion, the mu­seum has re­ceived a pe­ti­tion with 15,000 sig­na­tures seek­ing a spot­light for Clarence Thomas, who is men­tioned in the con­text of his con­tro­ver­sial nom­i­na­tion hear­ings.

Although he wel­comes the feed­back, Bunch bris­tles at the sug­ges­tion that the mu­seum has a po­lit­i­cal bent. “You could make an ar­gu­ment that we should have done more on the Supreme Court. We de­cided not to,” he said. “But there was never any de­ci­sion not to tell sto­ries about a par­tic­u­lar in­di­vid­ual be­cause of their pol­i­tics. Oth­er­wise, why is Ben Car­son here?”

Car­son joined Pres­i­dent Trump for an early-morn­ing tour last month that in­cluded dis­cus­sions about early pres­i­dents, and about the slave trade be­ing the first in­ter­na­tional busi­ness.

“Any­time you have a new pres­i­dent, you want this per­son to care about the Smith­so­nian,” Bunch said about the visit.

“There was a lot that was new to him, and I’m not go­ing to ar­gue that he sud­denly thought about Jef­fer­son in new ways or Muham­mad Ali,” he said. “But I think he re­al­ized th­ese were im­por­tant sto­ries. I was pleased when he said he’d come back. I take him at his word. And the fact that he tweeted that it was amaz­ing? I’m a happy guy.”

BILL O'LEARY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

The Na­tional Mu­seum of African Amer­i­can His­tory and Cul­ture dur­ing its six-month an­niver­sary March 20.

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