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NASM Sees Drop In Crowds In Recent Years

2006 Numbers Down Over Four Million Since 2003

If you've ever wanted to visit the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, now's the time -- as the huge crowds present in past years have dwindled considerably.

The Associated Press reports about 5 million people visited the museum in 2006. That's a respectable figure... but it's also far fewer than just three years before, when a record 9.4 million people walked through the hallowed halls, gazing at the aircraft and space capsules that defined America's presence in the skies.

The Smithsonian Institution -- which encompasses 18 museums in all, and the National Zoo -- has seen a dropoff in that time, as well... but the NASM's attendance rates have plummeted faster than the average. In fact, for the first time in recent memory, fewer people visited the NASM in 2006, than the National Museum of Natural History.

So, what's the deal? It could be a combination of things. For one, the museum hasn't had a major new gallery opening since 2003 -- which leads to a decline in the "novelty factor" in attracting visitors, said American Association of Museums spokesman Jason Hall.

One visitor to the museum noted some of the attractions need to be updated. Allen Witt, an engineer from Iowa, said many of the displays seem to stop past the mid-80s. Construction near the museum over the past several years may have also kept some visitors away.

"They've had extensive construction outside for a couple years ... which made it look as if the museum was closed," said Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas.

And then there's the recent addition of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia. The massive annex opened in 2003, and drew 1.4 million visitors the following year with such attractions as B-29 bomber "Enola Gay," and the prototype space shuttle Enterprise.

Attendance dropped at the annex in 2006, as well, to about one million visitors. Museum officials say some of those people may be avoiding its larger sister museum in DC.

Things may be looking up for NASM, though. This fall, the museum is due to unveil its revamped air transportation gallery, "America by Air." The exhibit will feature walk-through cockpits of a Boeing 747, and other airliners.

Another potential draw has seen some controversy. The Smithsonian has partnered with the Showtime Networks to create a new website intended to draw visitors. The Institute's semi-exclusive deal with Showtime could restrict access for other filmmakers, however, and historians.

Museum officials stress they aren't overly concerned with the drop in NASM attendance. They note 2003 was a banner year, as visitors were drawn to the museum by to the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' flight, as well as the shuttle Columbia accident. It's probably unfair to compare today's attendance to that record year.

NASA officials also note private contributions to the Smithsonian have rebounded since 9/11. The Smithsonian's private endowment reached a record high of $894 million in 2006.

"I don't think this museum will ever lose its relevance," said visitor Witt. "It will get more historic through time."



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