Image: Air and Space Museum
Jacquelyn Martin  /  AP file
Declining attendance at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington has been linked to construction, a nearby annex that houses the Enola Gay bomber, and the lack of a new gallery since 2003.
updated 2/20/2007 5:03:20 PM ET 2007-02-20T22:03:20

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. And the decline has been far sharper than that of the overall Smithsonian, which includes 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 ancient 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.)

Construction, lack of new gallery cited
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 moon walks — had special events in 2003 about the 100th anniversary of powered flight and tragic fate of the space shuttle Columbia. Still, the museum could use some freshening up.

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

Annex might have siphoned visitors
Another possible factor in the decline could be the museum’s annex — the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center — which opened in Chantilly, Va., in 2003. The massive annex, built like an airplane hangar and located near Washington Dulles International Airport, houses the Enola Gay B-29 bomber, which 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 — visitors who might be ignoring the annex’s sister museum in Washington.

“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,” Golkin said. “It’s one collection that’s in two locations.”

The attendance slump comes amid flat attendance at museums nationwide and an overall, though less stunning, decline at the Smithsonian complex.

Overall Smithsonian attendance has fallen 27 percent since 2001, compared to the air and space museum’s decline of 46 percent in the same period. But the air and space museum is still one of the most visited museums in the nation. Attendance at the Smithsonian declined after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the air and space museum also felt the impact of the decline in tourism. The numbers for both also plunged in 2004, rose the next year and then fell in 2006.

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

Another museum that has seen 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 in 2006 for renovations. The museum will remain closed until 2008.

People now counted as they exit
But the American history museum’s biggest problems were evident; they had been spelled out by a 2002 blue-ribbon commission. The commission called the museum’s layout and presentation confusing and questioned why some subjects at the museum are underrepresented, such as religion, capitalism, immigration and slavery. The report is being used to guide the renovation and strengthen the museum, officials say.

The method of counting visitors isn’t exactly scientific. Smithsonian officials said security guards use hand clickers to count people as they leave each of the 18 museums. And though the count may not be exact, it does indicate trends, they said. Between 2002 and 2003, the museums changed from counting people as they enter to counting as they exit. Golkin said museum entrances can be crowded at security checkpoints, but there’s less crowding as visitors leave.

Museums across the country count visitors in many ways or not at all. Many museums, unlike the Smithsonian, charge admission fees, making it easier to track attendance.

The Smithsonian is pursuing a number of initiatives to raise its profile this year.

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.

Showtime deal too exclusive?
The Smithsonian is also creating a controversial new TV unit with Showtime Networks Inc. and a new Web site to help tourists plan their visits. The Go-Smithsonian Web site was launched this month with links to hotels, transportation and dining options along with exhibition calendars. The Smithsonian’s semi-exclusive deal with Showtime could mean potential restrictions for other filmmakers and historians.

Meanwhile, Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small said private donations to the museums have rebounded since 2001. The Smithsonian’s private endowment reached a record high of $894 million at the end of 2006.

Last year, the complex raised $132 million in private donations, including three $15 million gifts: two unannounced gifts for the natural history museum, and one donation from Boeing for the air and space museum.

“We’re quite a bit ahead of where we were last year,” Small said.

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