Locating a museum in Washington, DC: or, why the Bible Museum is likely to fail
In culture, do you go with the flow or do you challenge it? The DC, the cultural museum sector is organized into three tranches.
1. National presenting institutions. You have the national publicly operated institutions like the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Institution, which are located here because of the city's place as the national capital. These institutions are patronized in large part by tourists visiting the city as part of their "pilgrimage" to the National Capital and region with the purpose of visiting those sites and cultural assets connected to or interpreting that national story.
The primary places people set out to visit are the US Capitol, Supreme Court, (maybe the Library of Congress), White House, National Mall and Memorials (Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial), Mount Vernon, the museums on the National Mall, Arlington Cemetery and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Bureau of Engraving & Printing, Kennedy Center + the Georgetown and Alexandria commercial districts.
2. Museums and cultural institutions that locate here because Washington, DC is the federal city.
Such organizations choose to locate here because:
(a.) they believe that the mission of their facility deserves the kind of national presence and footprint that comes from being located in the National Capital: U.S. Holocaust Museum; plans for an Armenian Holocaust Museum; John Paul II Cultural Center; Newseum; etc.
(b.) they want to capitalize on the tourist visitation spending: International Spy Museum; National Museum of Crime and Punishment; Wax Museum.
(c.) they are national institutions and the museum function they offer is ancillary but related to their mission or serves a significant public relations and support building function: Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences or the Museum/exhibits of the FBI at their headquarters building (now no longer open to the public but once one of the city's most visited attractions).
3. Museums, galleries, house museums and sites that are locally focused and serving. These are the kinds of institutions that are created in the center cities of virtually every metropolitan area, the art and history museums and other cultural institutions organized and funded by local elites.
Such facilities would be divided into at least two categories: general anchoring institutions like an art museum, zoo, historical society, library, and symphony hall; and institutions with a more micro and specific focus. In DC this would include the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Philips Gallery, the Hillwood Estate, Tudor House, the Historical Society of Washington, the Stone House in Georgetown, the Heurich Mansion, etc.
Normally, the local zoo and symphony hall, in DC these are the National Zoo and Kennedy Center, fall into this category, but in DC they are federally provided as a leftover function of Congressional control of the city. (The same goes for the Stone House, the oldest extant building in DC, which happens to be owned and managed by the National Park Service, but in other communities would likely be locally run.)
In most other places, these types of local/regional institutions would be the leading cultural organizations in the metropolitan area. In DC, they play second fiddle to the national presenting institutions, which consume most of the oxygen in the culturespace, making it very difficult for them to position, market, and fund.
Competing with the national story is difficult
People visiting the city have a finite amount of time and so are focused on visiting the primary cultural institutions that represent and interpret national memory. See the "Places I want to visit" section on the postcard below, which lists the primary cultural assets of the city. Visiting secondary institutions is a low priority and for most people, doesn't happen.
People who make it a point to go to the Smithsonian Castle and the National Gallery of Art aren't much compelled to visit local museums (they happen to call them galleries) like the Corcoran or the Philips.
This is one of the reasons that the Corcoran is in financial trouble. To compete in such an environment, you can't make many mistakes and you have to be innovative, and they've made lots of mistakes and probably haven't been innovative. Without the revenue from their allied art school, they'd have closed long ago.
Charging admissions is a problem when national presenting museums do not
It's very difficult for museums charging admission to compete with the free national museums. This is an issue for the Corcoran, probably is for the Newseum, and was for the City Museum.
Unless you are popular with tourists, especially families
The Spy Museum and Crime and Punishment Museum and the Wax Museum are all for profit organizations, and they are organized to be popular and successful and are, while the Wax Museum has a hard time financially.
I think this is because the first two museums leverage their presentation in terms of the national-federal story, while the Wax Museum doesn't offer as well targeted narrative, and even if it did, people would rather go to "the real museums" like the National Museum of American History or Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington.
BUT, if the FBI still gave tours, I can't imagine that the National Museum of Crime and Punishment would have ever opened. The fact that the FBI isn't giving tours leaves a "hole" in the market that the Spy and Crime Museums can fill--at a profit!
When you locate here because the city is the federal city
Museums that locate here because it is DC, but with a focus that is only tangentially related to the national-federal narrative have a difficult time being successful. I think the failure of the JP2CC ("D.C.’s Pope John Paul II Cultural Center back on the market" from the Washington Post), not to mention the ongoing problems of the Wax Museum, ought to provide a sober message to the people who want to create a National Bible Museum in DC. See "Museum of the Bible planned for D.C." from the Washington Business Journal.
I could see how you create a museum about religion and faith and church and state issues and it could be quite interesting and related to the national-federal narrative in a manner that captures people's interest, attention, and admissions fees.
But like when a tourist on the 200 block of Pennsylvania Avenue SE asked me if there was a NASCAR Cafe close by (and comparably the failure of Planet Hollywood--which I think could have been cool as hell if it focused its memorabilia presentation on movies about and Washington, DC and the federal government, and ESPN Zone in the city), some ideas fit in with the expectations and market positioning of why people come to the city and spend time and money consuming culture and other ideas don't.
I think the Bible Museum falls into the probably will fail category. So probably does the Armenian Genocide Museum of America, if it ever opens. The US Holocaust Museum does very well. It's related to the national-federal story in many ways but at the same time, the people running and curating the museum are top notch.
But at the same time, museums in this category ever growing competition from new national presenting institutions that are being created on or around the National Mall, to satisfy the desires of various groups to be recognized as part and parcel of the "American Experience" especially in terms of the place value that comes from being in Washington, DC--the national capital/Federal City. See "The Rant: Everyone wants, and gets, a museum" from the Washington Post.
The National Museum of the American Indian has already opened. The National Museum of African American History and Culture is coming ("Philip Freelon, architect of record of the Smithsonian’s African American Museum" from the Washington Post). Advocacy to create a National Latino Museum is underway ("Panel recommends a national Latino museum be created near the Capitol" from the Washington Post). New memorials continue to open (FDR, World War II, Martin Luther King Jr.) or are being planned (Dwight Eisenhower).
Selling local culture in the face of an audience focused on consuming the national-federal narrative
(See the past blog entry, "Cultural resources planning in DC: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.") It's almost impossible without a lot of financial support, able and visionary leadership, and focus to be successful in the museumspace in Washington.
Yes it's true that tourists focused on cultural heritage stay longer and spend more money ("New Study Reveals Popularity ofU.S. Cultural and Heritage Travel: Large, Affluent Market Focuses on History and Tradition" from Cultural Heritage Tourism News).
But when they come to DC to do so, they are coming to visit the national presenting institutions--which they interpret as the fundamental and most interesting "local" story, even though these institutions are more correctly seen as elements of the national narrative--and they don't visit the truly local sites and museums that focus on the local-metropolitan-regional-state history.
(Note that all capitals, even state capitals, have this issue, of the center-periphery persuasion. For example, in Richmond, you have the Valentine Center for History, which interprets the local history, while you also have the Virginia Historical Society, which interprets local and statewide history, while the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is really the local art museum for Richmond, but because it is in the state capital, it's mission and name are more lofty. Etc.)
If the local institutions were top notch, they probably could succeed at some level.
But when they aren't, it's almost impossible. This is the problem with many of the locally focused cultural institutions in Washington, DC, especially those with limited endowments and financial support.