- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2007

It’s a mystery even for researchers at the Smithsonian Institution: What happened to the huge crowds at the National Air and Space Museum?

The estimated number of visitors to the museum plunged to about 5 million in 2006 from a six-year high of 9.4 million in 2003, according to the latest attendance report from the museum complex. The decline has been far sharper than the overall attendance downturn at the Smithsonian’s 18 museums and the National Zoo.

Last year, attendance at what has been one of the world’s most-visited museums fell below that of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, which features dinosaur fossils and the Hope Diamond. Museum officials say this is the only instance in recent memory in which the air and space museum trailed the history museum.

Peter Golkin, a spokesman for the air and space museum, said officials are not worried. He noted that the museum is still the most popular overall.

One explanation for the downturn could be that the museum hasn’t opened a major new gallery since 2003. Jason Hall, spokesman for the American Association of Museums, said a museum’s “novelty factor” is important in attracting visitors, and it can help explain sudden increases and downturns in attendance.

For the air and space museum, 2003 happened to be a banner year. The museum — home to the Wright brothers’ first airplane and relics from the space race and Apollo moonwalks — held special events in 2003 for the 100th anniversary of powered flight and for the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

Construction near the museum also may have kept away some visitors, officials said.

“They’ve had extensive construction outside for a couple years … which made it look as if the museum was closed,” Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said.

Another factor in the decline could be the museum’s annex — the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center — which opened in Chantilly in 2003. The annex, built like an airplane hangar near Washington Dulles International Airport, houses the Enola Gay — the B-29 bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb — the prototype Space Shuttle Enterprise and dozens of other planes.

The newer facility drew 1.6 million visitors in 2004, its first full year of operation, and about 1 million last year. These visitors might be forgoing the annex’s sister museum in the District.

“That’s possible, although we’d like to think that you need to see both facilities to really get the whole sweeping history of flight that we present,” Mr. Golkin said. “It’s one collection that’s in two locations.”

Attendance has been flat at museums nationwide, and the Smithsonian complex has recorded an overall decline.

Overall Smithsonian attendance has fallen 27 percent since 2001. The air and space museum, with a decline of 46 percent in the same period, is still one of the most visited museums in the nation.

Attendance at the Smithsonian declined after September 11, and the air and space museum also felt the effects of the downfall in tourism. The numbers for both also plunged in 2004, rose the next year and then fell in 2006.

“Things have been skewed numberswise since 2001,” Mr. Golkin said. “I think we still haven’t come fully out of that aftermath.”

Another museum that has reported sharp declines since 2001 is the National Museum of American History. Attendance dropped 42 percent from 5.2 million in 2001 to 3 million in 2005, the last full year of operations before the museum closed for renovations. The museum will remain closed until next year.

Smithsonian officials said security guards use hand clickers to count people as they leave each of the 18 museums. Although the count may not be exact, it does indicate trends, they said.

The Smithsonian is pursuing several initiatives to raise its profile.

This fall, for example, the air and space museum will open a renovated air transportation gallery called “America by Air,” which will include the nose of a Boeing 747. Visitors will be able to walk through the cockpit of the jumbo jet and through earlier airliners. The project and other renovations have required ongoing construction in recent years.

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