Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, November 29, 2013

A science fiction museum for DC?

According to the Washington City Paper, in "Museum of Science Fiction Planned for D.C.," a group is attempting to create a museum on science fiction in the city, starting with a crowdfunding initiative.

I have to say it reminds me of other initiatives that I've heard about:

- a black baseball museum for the H Street neighborhood that never went anywhere;
- the long delayed Armenian Genocide Museum of America ("Battle over Armenian genocide museum in DC gets nasty," McClatchy Newspapers; "D.C. buildings linked to Armenian Genocide museum to be razed," Washington Business Journal)
- or was involved in (an attempt to create a Capitol Fire Museum devoted to the history of firefighting efforts in the ctiy).

Washington DC: National Bank of Washington
The proposed location of the Armenian Genocide Museum of America has been vacant for close to two decades.  Image of the National Bank of Washington headquarters by wallyg, on Flickr.

DC is a tough place for museums that have to charge an admissions fee.

First, people mostly come to DC to visit the national museums.  They come here to consume the "national story"/"American Memory" and American mythology.

Second, the national museums and monuments don't charge an admissions fee.  So many of the museums that do have to charge a fee, because they are not funded for the most part by the federal government, have a real problem "making it."

For example, the longstanding issues surrounding the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which have been discussed here as have the failures of the no longer extant City Museum.  I haven't discussed the problems of the seemingly well-funded Newseum ("Newseum in DC makes changes as funding falls short"), focused on the news media, which has had a hard time positioning itself in the museum milieu.

Third, people don't usually budget additional time to visit other institutions outside of the typical "national" attractions that are present in DC and Northern Virginia (White House, US Capitol, Supreme Court, National Mall and the Washington Monument, Jefferson Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, and Veterans Memorial, Smithsonian Institutions and the National Gallery of Art, Mount Vernon--George Washington's plantation, Arlington Cemetery, maybe the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, + the Alexandria and/or Georgetown commercial districts).

This is why the general cultural tourism rule of thumb that "people who are cultural tourists spend more time and money when visiting other places" isn't fully applicable to the local offer within the city that exists outside of the national narrative.

Fourth, so if you're going to do a "museum" in the city, it probably helps to have a topic that leverages the existing/dominant narrative and tourist stream.  The International Spy Museum and the National Museum of Crime and Punishment are both privately owned museums that leverage elements of the national story--plus their ability to garner audiences is probably helped by the fact that one of DC's biggest attractions, a tour of the FBI headquarters, hasn't been offered since 2002, and the CIA doesn't give tours.

A museum on music not a part of the Smithsonian failed ("Music museum to open in DC," Billboard Magazine; "Plans for national music museum come to a coda," Washington Business Journal).  I don't think the Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum does particularly well.  Even the failure of the Planet Hollywood DC location (it might have succeeded if all of its memorabilia was national narrative focused) is relevant.  I just don't see Science Fiction as having enough connection to the DC/Washington National cultural narrative enough to be able to succeed.   

Fifth, interestingly, the US Holocaust Museum is successful and is independent, in part perhaps because it has a great location adjacent to the National Mall.  It would be interesting to study its success as a leveragable lesson.

Sixth, all the more reason to have a comprehensive and integrated cultural master plan for the city.

I forgot to mention that it might behoove DC's cultural institutions that charge admissions:  Corcoran Gallery of Art; International Spy Museum; Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum; National Museum of Crime and Punishment; Newseum, Philips Collection; plus the boat ride people; to join in on and create a combined promotion comparable to the City Pass that is marketed in many other cities, such as NY, Philadelphia or San Francisco.

SF's City Pass includes a transit pass good for a week (worth $28) and admission to the California Academy of Sciences; the Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise; a choice of the Aquarium of the Bay or the Monterey Bay Aquarium; and a choice of the Exploratorium or the de Young Museum.

To make a DC pass worthwhile, it would need to fold in a transit pass. I don't know how to do that. In SF, you can just show the pass to the bus driver or station attendant. Station attendants aren't always in the booth at Metrorail stations.

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At 2:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

BEP is the second most visited tourist destination in DC

At 2:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also- the city government itself does absolutely NOTHING to encourage cultural endeavors outside big sporting or musical events. This reflects the cultural roots of the class- mostly comprised of PG county residents - in control of the DC government.

At 2:28 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I thought of you so I was sure to include it in the list.

At 3:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Richard- but it would be nice if some of our city leaders were as passionate about the arts and culture outside of sports- to the same degree as Vincent Orange seems to be on building a new domed super - stadium. It seems that these guys have zero interest in arts at all. It means nothing to them . Forget anything remotely cerebral like science fiction !! Actually- this kind of museum would do well to locate as close as possible to the Air and Space museum here in the city-to leverage any possible interests associated with the topic.. but wait- and see- no doubt someone in the Northern Viagaran suburban sprawl will recruit them to go out to the Udvar Hazy museum and that will be the end of it for DC having any go at it. It will go out there, receive full funding and become world famous. All the while DC will have lost out on yet another opportunity .

At 2:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...but it would be nice if some of our city leaders were as passionate about the arts and culture outside of sports-"

LOLOL... you clearly haven't been paying attention to the Evans' campaign pandering. Last year it was the libraries. This year it's arts and culture. Next: Jack in a tutu.


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