Museum Ready for Change

Children’s Museum Has New Name, Home

Posted September 14, 2004 at 3:29pm

Ask a child what they want to see in a children’s museum, and the answers will pour in at lightning speed. In fact, the responses will be enough to crash a Web site.

“Kids are very good at being able to answer this,” said Kathy Dwyer Southern, president and CEO of the in-the-works National Children’s Museum, which is estimated to open in June 2008. “We did a poll with Time for Kids about a year ago. It was on the Web site for about three days and it crashed the site because there were so many responses.”

The staff of the 30-year-old Capital Children’s Museum, located at 800 Third St. NE, decided a few years ago that some changes needed to be made to better serve the roughly 1 million children in the capital area and the five and a half million annual visitors with children. With about 250 children’s museums nationwide, those at CCM realized something was missing — a national children’s museum.

“There are monuments and memorials to everybody in this town, and there is not one to children,” Southern said. “Our sister organizations across the country, they really support this idea of having a flagship state-of-the-art museum in Washington.”

With the enactment of H.R. 13, the Museum and Library Services Act of 2003, Congress designated the CCM as the country’s National Children’s Museum. D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) was a sponsor of the bill, which supports the efforts of the NCM but does not grant the museum an annual appropriation.

“It will fundamentally affect how we do business,” Southern said. “It’s not a name change just to change the name. We can work with museums around the country and highlight their best exhibitions and programs.”

However, a “state-of-the-art” building does not come cheap. While the former site of the CCM sold for $24 million to Abdo Development, the future 140,000-square-foot home to the National Children’s Museum at L’Enfant Plaza will cost about $100 million. That leaves those at the NCM with about a $75 million fundraising goal.

“We will be looking at contributions from the private sector and we also will be hopeful to approach the federal government and the city,” Southern said.

The choice to build at L’Enfant Plaza came down to convenience and timing, as the JBG Companies, a D.C.-based real estate and development firm, suggested the location as an alternative to the Southwest waterfront, where NCM “spent a lot of time looking” for a potential home.

“You look at a number of sites and you have a set of criteria,” Southern said about choosing a location. “For both the waterfront and the plaza, both answered [our criteria] in a positive way. In the end, it came down to timing — the waterfront is going to take some more time to figure out.”

The first thing NCM considered was access to public transportation and parking. With L’Enfant Plaza having four Metrorail lines coming into its station and what Southern said is the second-largest parking garage in the District, access to the location is much better than at the Third Street building, where the CCM was tucked away behind the Union Station railyards.

The access, the space and the close proximity to the Mall had Ward 6 Councilwoman Sharon Ambrose excited about the museum’s new location.

“I mean, who goes to L’Enfant Plaza?” Ambrose asked at a community meeting in August at the former CCM site. “There’s nothing there! I’ve been saying since this started — it’s a win-win-win.”

Ambrose, who said the CCM’s old location was too “constrained” for the museum and its exhibits, said she wanted to have the community meeting so the building did not just “fade away in packing boxes without people being able to ask questions” about what was going to happen to the museum once it officially closed its doors on Aug. 22.

As for the “out with the old, in with the new,” Abdo will begin transforming the former CCM site into a residential area. Jim Abdo, president and CEO of Abdo Development, said all parts of the site that are not “historic” will be demolished and rebuilt. The finished complex will feature 110-foot-tall buildings with 11 stories, an English basement component and just over 500 underground parking spaces. The entire site will be about 550,000 square feet, not including the parking garage.

“We don’t think an office building is going to kick-start H Street — we know it’s housing,” Abdo said at the community meeting. “We want to bring in more customers for the retail that’s already here.”

Construction cannot begin until all permits have been obtained. Abdo will apply for PUD (planned unit development) this month, but that is just the beginning. Building permits usually take about six months to be issued, and the construction itself will probably take from 14 to 18 months. In the end, the cost of units will be varied, anywhere from the low $200,000 range to units up to $1 million, said Toby Millman, vice president of project development for Abdo.

With construction slated for the former CCM location, what will happen to the museum’s existing exhibits?

“We’re gifting them, donating them to other institutions both locally and nationally,” Southern said. “For instance, our chemistry lab, which was one of the first labs in the country to do real science when it opened about 10 years ago, is going to an institution in Utah.”

Now, while the NCM is currently a “museum without walls,” employees have plenty of time to discuss the new exhibits that will inhabit the L’Enfant location. Southern said the exhibits will be focused mainly on a few “core” areas the museum has had experience in, such as science, technology, global citizenship and culture.

“They’ll certainly be based on our 30 years at CCM, but they’ll be new,” Southern said. “Most of them [at CCM] have been tried and true and have been here a long time, and this is an opportunity to take a fresh look at these areas and what they mean to kids.”

Southern said the input from kids has been “great” and has even been a bit surprising, as many are saying they want “serious stuff, like how our government works” in the museum, not just exhibits on “how to make cookies.”

The CCM site saw 150,000 to 200,000 visitors annually in its 30-year run. At the L’Enfant location, those numbers are projected to more than double to around 500,000 visitors per year. Of those visitors, 80 percent will be from the Washington area, while the remaining 20 percent will be tourists. Regardless of where the children are from, the NCM is slated to be quite an attraction in 2008.

“As long as you keep having kids, [NCM] has an audience,” Southern said.