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Spy museum among many new sites planned for D.C. area

Tuesday, May 28, 2002

By Karen MacPherson, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- When the International Spy Museum opens here in July, visitors will explore the world of espionage by adopting a "cover," crawling through an air duct designed for eavesdropping, deciphering a code and identifying disguised spies.

Lipstick pistol

Museum-goers also will be treated to dozens of interactive displays set in rooms intended to transport them to important places in spy history, such as an ersatz Bletchley Park, where 10,000 Britons worked night and day to break the German World War II "Enigma" code, a chillingly real interrogation chamber and a re-created Berlin tunnel.

Before exiting into the 5,000-square-foot gift shop and choosing between two restaurants for a bite to eat, visitors will be able to discuss the current state of espionage with specialists who once worked in the field.

This combination of information, artifacts and high-tech entertainment is the latest way museums are trying to draw in crowds. Backers of the for-profit International Spy Museum hope that it will attract at least 500,000 people annually -- at $11 per adult -- to their facility in a lavishly refurbished block of buildings in downtown Washington, just a few blocks from traditional tourist sites on the National Mall.

"Museums are competing for people's leisure time," said Dennis Barrie, president of Malrite Co., which is developing the museum. "So museums are changing, making their presentation more inviting and attractive to visitors."

The International Spy Museum is in the vanguard in another way as well. It is one of more than a dozen new museums that are planned for the nation's capital over the next decade. These museums range from the City Museum of Washington, D.C., which has an opening date of 2003, to the National Women's History Museum, whose supporters are still raising money and searching for a site.

 
 
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New museums planned for Washington D.C.

   
 

By the official count of the National Capital Planning Commission, the Washington area already boasts 74 museums and 155 memorials. That count doesn't include museums like the "Squished Penny Museum," which is housed in its founders' Washington row house (and on the Internet at http://www.squished.com).

But museum planners and others say there's plenty of room for more museums as long as they're not on the National Mall. The mall's last museum-sized spot was claimed years ago by the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, set to open in 2004.

"We're getting 22 million visitors a year in Washington," said Barbara Franco, president and CEO of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. "If Washington really wants to make tourism a vital part of its economic development, it needs to diversify its offerings and have more places for people to go. The city can absorb a lot more tourists when things are decentralized."

At least 16 new museums -- in varying stages of planning -- are proposed for the Washington area. Four are close to opening: the International Spy Museum, the City Museum, the American Indian Museum and the National Air and Space Museum's annex at Dulles Airport, slated to open in December 2003.

In addition, Congress is about to start work on a new, underground Capitol Visitors Center; Mount Vernon officials have announced plans for an $85 million museum honoring George Washington; work may soon begin on a National Garden next to the Botanic Gardens on Capital Hill; and a design competition for the Museum of the Americas is about to get under way.

Escape boots

Two longtime museums -- the Phillips and the Corcoran -- are planning large expansions, while the Newseum, a history of news gathering in America, is moving just blocks from the U.S. Capitol.

Several other proposed museums -- including the National Museum of Women's History, the National Health Museum and the Cold War Museum -- haven't yet found physical homes but have a vibrant Internet presence via their cybermuseums.

And at least two museums, the National Music Museum and the National Military Museum, are still dreams.

Richard Longstretch, editor of a history of the Mall, believes that this push for new museums will draw visits by those interested in "going beyond the old chestnuts" of the traditional Washington tour.

"Also, part of the thrust in heritage tourism is to spread the dollars out, to put it crassly. What is really needed are some major destinations outside of the Mall," said Longstretch.

Wristwatch camera

"We need to convince people that Washington isn't a city that you need an armored vehicle to visit. It is a clean, decent and safe city."

In an effort to steer new museums to less central spots, federal planning officials have identified 16 sites appropriate for a museum or major memorial, and 84 other sites best suited for memorials. Many are in parts of the city that tourists typically don't visit.

"Such attractions can offer wonderful opportunities to areas that are poised for renewal, such as the South Capitol Street corridor," said John V. Cogbill III, the National Capital Planning Commission chairman. "With its proximity to the U.S. Capitol and its spectacular water views, this quadrant of the city would serve as a great location for future museums and memorials."

The South Capitol area hasn't yet attracted new museums. And many groups continue to seek locations as close as possible to the Mall.

For example, backers of the National Health Museum are working to win the federal government's permission to take over a vacant federal building two blocks off the Mall. Congressional supporters of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture want to refurbish the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building, next to the historic Smithsonian Castle on the Mall. And the Museum of the Americas is planned for the Organization of American States grounds at the Mall's edge, near the Washington Monument.

Despite this Mall fixation, there is a growing museum presence several blocks north of the Mall. The area is anchored by the Washington Convention Center (the current one as well as a new one set to open next year), the MCI Arena and the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro stop, which connects three subway lines.

Several museums already are in the area, including Ford's Theater, where President Abraham Lincoln was fatally shot, and two Smithsonian facilities -- the National Museum of American Art and the National Portrait Gallery. There's a fledging "arts walk" area nearby, with galleries, theaters and restaurants.

Shoe with a heel transmitter

The International Spy Museum, directly across from the National Portrait Gallery, will add to this neighborhood's eclectic mix of museums.

By locating here, the spy museum developers earned $22 million in bond financing from city officials eager to lure tourists into other parts of Washington. The museum has a total price tag of $36 million.

Some argue that the spy museum developers are taking a chance by situating their facility away from the Mall's high tourist traffic and by charging an admission fee in a city famed for its free museums. But the developers figure they'll get plenty of visitors because espionage is such an intriguing subject and their museum is more interactive than most others in Washington.

"Most people spend three or four days in D.C.," said Dennis Barrie, president of the firm developing the spy museum and former executive director of Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. "By the third day, they've done the traditional sites and are looking for something different. Our museum has got an edge that will interest people."

While the spy museum is almost a reality, some museums planned for that zone are still in their formative stages. Perhaps the most unusual is the proposed Museum of Bags. Founders Howard and Lee Forman, who have collected 2,000 bags over the past 32 years and believe that is "one of the largest private [bag] collections in the world," now want to create a museum to house them.

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