Holocaust museum swamped with visitors, proves skeptics wrong Staff asks people to delay visit, if they can

November 17, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Defying skeptics who thought a museum devoted to Nazi horrors would have little appeal in this country, the new United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has been so popular in its first seven months that museum officials are asking people to stay away.

"Now I've never heard of people going to the press to say, 'Please don't come,' " said museum Deputy Director Elaine Heumann Gurian at a news conference yesterday. "But in effect, we are asking that people who have a chance of coming slightly later look at that. We're most especially asking that groups look at that."

So far, more than 750,000 people have visited the provocative museum, the attendance figure the museum expected for the year, creating stresses on the staff, the budget and even the facility itself.

Reserved tickets to the museum, located near the National Mall and the Smithsonian Institution, are generally sold out at least a month in advance. Same-day tickets available at the box office -- about half of the 4,200 tickets distributed each day -- are usually gone by 10 a.m. on weekends, noon on weekdays. The museum receives 250 requests a day for group reservations, with every Sunday booked through next May for groups.

"We are uniformly thrilled by our success. We are equally tired from our success," said Ms. Gurian. "We ask -- and it's a funny thing to ask -- that . . . if you wish to have a less uncomfortable experience, that you delay your visit."

The museum, built amid controversies over its placement, its tenor, its aim and its appropriateness in this country, opened to a splash of publicity and crowds in April. Museum officials expected the throngs of visitors who lined up around the block every day to thin out after Labor Day. They never did.

Aside from discouraging attendance, officials said they plan to reduce the number of groups attending, redesign some of the exhibition space and expand the staff.

"Disney World, the Met would be envious of these numbers," TTC said pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted a survey for the museum.

The survey, released yesterday, showed that 72 percent of the museum's visitors are from out of town, mostly from the East Coast, and as many as 12 percent are from Maryland. And, like museum-goer Helena Bialek of New Jersey, more than one in four come to Washington specifically to see the Holocaust museum.

Only 38 percent of the visitors are Jewish. And visitors spend an average of three hours at the museum, double the time spent at other museums, said Mr. Hart.

The majority -- 94 percent -- described their experience there as positive, but nearly half named the museum's congestion and its limited ticket availability as its No. 1 flaw. Museum Director Jeshajahu Weinberg attributed the museum's extraordinary success to the gripping, emotional and highly personal nature of its displays. Visitors, he said, "identify with the victims and are outraged by the perpetrators."

Unlike this "hot museum," he said most museums are cold, static institutions that don't "drive up your blood pressure. This one does."

But he added that the extreme success has not come without "very serious problems."

With increased costs from round-the-clock maintenance -- and the additional 54 staff members that had to be employed -- officials said that they expect the museum to end the year $12 million short of its operating budget and that they will have to do more fund raising than planned.

Yesterday morning, visitors -- and groups -- continued to pour into the museum from all over, like the 10 Virginians from the University of the Nations in Richmond, Va., who had reserved tickets back in June.

"Those who said we shouldn't build it here have been proven wrong," said Mr. Weinberg.


For information on tickets to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 (or 268-7736 in Anne Arundel County). Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6130 after you hear the greeting.

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