Building a Better Museum

National Building Museum President Wants to Wow Visitors

Posted September 23, 2003 at 3:18pm

“The first thing the visitor will experience is a moment of breathlessness from being so stunned. A sort of ‘oh-wow’ moment.”

That’s how Chase Rynd, the new president of the National Building Museum, described the entry into the building’s remarkable Great Hall, in which eight marbleized Corinthian columns tower 75 feet to the ceiling.

“But that’s just the beginning,” Rynd (which rhymes with “wind”) continued. “It’s not just the building. Once you get past looking at the Great Hall, you are bound to find an exhibit that will engage you and speak to your interest.”

Rynd, who grew up in New York, is taking over the reins from Susan Henshaw Jones, who was president of the National Building Museum for nine years and stepped down because of personal reasons.

With the excitement of the first days on a new job still evident in his demeanor, Rynd seems to have adjusted effortlessly to his new, luminous office on the fourth floor of the football field-size Great Hall.

The 57-year-old Rynd and the museum’s board of trustees hope that under new leadership more visitors will experience the “oh-wow” moment when they enter the museum.

In fact, much of Rynd’s attraction to the museum was the challenge to increase the museum’s presence in the national and international community.

“It was a really attractive and really interesting challenge. I am sort of hard-wired that way. Show me a challenge,” he said.

It was those strong leadership skills that caught the attention of the museum’s board of trustees.

“We chose Chase because he fit the bill for everything we were looking for,” said Carolyn Schwenker Brody, chairwoman of the museum’s board of trustees. Brody said the four-member selection board was impressed with Rynd’s national and international reputation, his “strategic thinking” and his “entrepreneurial spirit.”

“He’s known in the broader museum community, and we hope it will move [the museum] to greater recognition in the museum world,” she said, adding the selection committee chose Rynd unanimously.

The museum, dedicated to programs about America’s built environment, is covered in more than 15 million red bricks and terra cotta ornaments and has loomed over Judiciary Square since originally opening its doors to the U.S. Pension Bureau in the 1880s.

Rynd will spearhead efforts to establish the museum, which he characterizes as a non-niche museum, more firmly as a national and international cultural leader.

“It can’t become nationally recognized until you have something to be recognized for,” the Georgetown graduate said. “I’m lucky enough to come in and take what has been done and take it to the next step.”

Since arriving in D.C. on Sept. 1, Rynd has been busy getting to know the staff and the culture of the office, and he is now turning his attention to increasing attendance records and acquiring more recognition.

In upcoming meetings with the museum’s board and staff, he hopes to create a list of goals that will help lead them in improving the reputation of the museum.

Rynd, who admits many locals haven’t been to the museum, hopes marketing and outreach campaigns will increase the profile of the institution that annually attracts around 400,000 people.

“I want to get out there and give talks to civic groups and get the word out,” he said. “People get excited when they learn what we do. We just have to find the button to push for every person.”

The museum saw a 12 percent decline in attendance between fiscal 2001 and 2002. Although this year’s attendance is currently 80,000 below last year’s, Jill Dixon, the museum’s director of public affairs, anticipates an influx in attendance before the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year due to “several big events in September.”

Attendance “dipped a bit after Sept. 11 [2001] and the sniper attacks, and we had a rough winter so we closed occasionally,” Dixon said. “We hope to bring back more [people] with more programming and educational programs.”

Rynd maintains the museum is unique in that it applies to almost everyone.

“What’s amazing about our mission is that virtually every single person on the planet is impacted by the built environment and is in contact with buildings,” said Rynd, who is single and has children living in Seattle. “We have an unlimited audience.”

Despite graduating with a degree in international economics and wanting to “save the world,” Rynd has had a considerable amount of experience in the art world. He opened his own art gallery in Seattle and was chairman of the Seattle Arts Commission, executive director of the Tacoma Art Museum and, most recently, founding executive director and CEO of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville.

“I have had an unorthodox career path,” he said. “After working in the financial world, I realized it wasn’t where my heart was.”

Although Rynd played an instrumental role in developing a diverse membership base and earning the Frist Center national recognition, he insists his work at the National Building Museum is different.

“I was in charge of overseeing the construction of the facility and hiring the staff. It was my ‘baby.’ At the Frist Center, I created the environment and culture,” he said, adding that the National Building Museum already has those fundamentals.

The museum “has a very solid foundation, good staff, a history of excellent exhibits and education programs,” he said.

Instead, Rynd is beginning to sift through the museum’s office culture to get a feeling for the groundwork.

“I have a very different task facing me here,” he said, adding that he intends to extract the good aspects and correct the negative aspects.

“I honestly believe this museum is a total gem that should really be embraced by the community,” he concludes. “A lot of people haven’t been here, and that is a loss.”