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From AJR,   June/July 2008

Settling In   

Online Exclusive>>Newseum officials are pleased by attendance at the new Washington, D.C., attraction.

By Lindsay Kalter
Lindsay Kalter (lindsay.kalter@gmail.com) is an Ann Arbor-based writer.     

Now that the Newseum has passed its two month mark, it is moving beyond its frenetic days as a Washington, D.C., novelty and settling into its lavish new home on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Some questioned whether the newly opened Newseum, with its $20 admission, would find its place in a city full of free museums. But Newseum officials say attendance has surpassed that of its previous location across the Potomac in Rosslyn, Virginia, which was free, and they expect numbers to keep rising.

Joe Urschel, the Newseum's executive director, declines to give exact figures on the number of visitors because it is "too early," but says attendance has far exceeded initial expectations of matching the old Newseum's popularity. "We had high expectations to begin with, and we're very happy with how we're doing," he says.

Tina Tate, director of media relations at the Newseum, says on opening day--April 11--the museum had seen 10,840 visitors by 2:30 p.m. Urschel says when the doors closed at 5 p.m., 13,000 people had been through. An additional 2,500 people had to be turned away and were given free passes for the following day.

Although Urschel says he doesn't expect to see that large of a crowd again, the traffic at the $450 million museum of news holds steady. On weekdays, herds of middle schoolers and high schoolers spill into the building, while families and small groups of adults tend to come in on the weekends, he says.

Urschel adds that the $20 fee is in line with museums in other cities and others in the area that charge for admission. "The Spy Museum, Crime and Punishment, Madam Tussaud's, they all charge about the same," he says. "And if you would take all the other museums that charge a fee, they would all fit into the [250,000 square-foot] Newseum."

The other paid museums are for-profit, he says, while the Newseum is a private institution relying heavily on donations from founding partners. It has other methods of offsetting expenses as well, like the two levels of conference centers and the 135 apartments units resting above the museum. The monthly apartment rates range from $1,720 for a 440-square-foot studio, to $6,510 for a 1,333-square-foot two-bedroom two-bathroom--and that doesn't include the $250 per month for parking. Joe Sancho, the apartment property manager, says the apartments are renting out ahead of schedule, and the goal is to have all the units occupied by August or September of this year.

Visitors don't seem to mind the admission fee, but then again, many Newseum guests have found a way in for free. Some are getting reimbursed by their companies, and others are finagling free tickets from National Public Radio to watch live broadcasts of "Talk of the Nation."

Emily Zeigenfuse, an employee of the American College of Cardiology, had her fee paid for by the college. "I really liked it, it was really visually interesting," she says. But would she have gone had she been forced to cough up the $20 fee? "I would have come eventually," she said after a pause. "Not as quickly, though."

Ashley Carter, who was also covered as a College of Cardiology employee, says she would have gone even if she hadn't been reimbursed by the company. "I'm from New York, where you always have to pay a fee to go into a museum," she says. "So I definitely think $20 would have been doable for this."

Larry Sterbane came to watch the NPR broadcast, which he says was "interesting" but "less exciting" than he had anticipated. "I would have come here otherwise because I'm into the news and current events," he says, "but I'm glad I didn't have to pay. I think I will definitely come back."

Urschel says the "I-Witness: A 4-D Time Travel Adventure" movie in the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Theater, where moving seats make visitors feel like they're in the film, is one of the most popular attractions at the Newseum (as Urschel says, "Who wouldn't want to see a 4-D movie?"). He says roughly 100,000 people have seen the film, which allows 200 viewers at a time.

The Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery also gets its fair share of attention, along with the 9/11 Gallery, which documents the September 11 terrorist attacks. "The 9/11 exhibit has been extremely... I don't know if popular is the right word, but people go there and are very reverential and very moved," he says.

Urschel says more than 1,000 passes that allow patrons an unlimited number of visits for one year have been sold at $75 each. "That says to me that people enjoy the exhibits and want to come back," he says.

The Newseum will be adding an exhibit on June 20, "G-Men and Journalists: Top News Stories of the FBI's First Century," that will highlight major events from the FBI's first 100 years. The exhibit will include the Unabomber's cabin, John Dillinger's machine gun and mask, and evidence from the Lindbergh kidnapping. Many of the exhibit's artifacts were once showcased by the FBI for the public but have been off-limits due to heightened security after 9/11. Urschel says the exhibit "looks at the symbiotic relationship between news media and FBI."

Urschel predicts the Newseum's success will grow as more people hear about its attractions. "My sense is that word of mouth on the Newseum is very, very positive," he says. "I think the attendance will build as it did in Rosslyn year after year."