- The Washington Times - Monday, November 29, 2004

The crowds that had been missing from the City Museum of Washington, DC since its opening last year finally showed up yesterday, the day before the facility closed its doors indefinitely to the general public because of lower-than-expected attendance and money troubles.

“One of the workers told me, ‘If we were always this busy, then we wouldn’t need to close,’” said Mikel Witte, a New York City tourist who visited the museum yesterday.

Tourists and city residents stood in long lines on the museum’s final day, figuring that they might not get another chance to go inside — at least not for a year or two.

The board of trustees for the museum dedicated to D.C. history voted earlier this month to close the museum to the general public, citing “continuing financial difficulties.”

Museum officials blamed a shortfall of between $500,000 and $1 million and a lack of federal funding.

They say the facility at Mount Vernon Square across the street from the Washington Convention Center will stay open to researchers and tour groups, including schoolchildren.

Thornell Page, a member of the board of directors, said the facility will reopen within a year or 18 months after a fund-raising campaign.

He said the museum, which is operated by the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., has been operating at a deficit of at least $500,000.

“The real problem is that it opened prematurely,” Mr. Page said. “There was a great deal of enthusiasm and excitement when it opened, but it all just got ahead of the business plan.”

Museum officials say they are closing and cutting back services now so they can retool their business plan and reopen for good in the future.

“We’re not closing permanently; we’re closing so we can reopen,” Mr. Page said.

Some of the plans under consideration include incorporating into the museum experience a town hall, an orientation center for visitors and a restaurant, officials said.

The museum employed 30 workers a year ago. It will employ only five after closing, officials said.

Mr. Page said the museum’s attendance — projected to be about 100,000 per year — never came close to that, with fewer than 40,000 showing up last year. Tickets were $5 for the general public and $4 for students.

“The bigger problem is that we didn’t have a dedicated source of income,” he said. “We were more dependent on attendance than most museums. Most have endowments or other dedicated sources of income.”

Ironically, the move to close the museum spurred interest in the facility, judging by yesterday’s long lines.

“I didn’t even know it was here until I heard it was closing,” said Jerry O’Brien, 66, a barber and lifelong D.C. resident who lives in Northwest.

“I think maybe they could have kept it going if they had gotten the word out a little better,” Mr. O’Brien said. “I didn’t know anything about it, and I live here.”

Several people who showed up yesterday said they knew about the museum, but they had been putting off a visit.

“I procrastinated, but the realization that this was the last day did it,” said Daniel Mosley, 85, of Southeast.

Richard Crutchfield, 73, of Northwest, shopped yesterday in the museum gift shop, which had advertised a “50 percent discount liquidation sale” and was crowded throughout the afternoon.

“I meant to come down here, but it’s just one of those things,” he said. “I never got around to it.”

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