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Fewer visitors drop in on Air and Space Museum

February 21, 2007|From the Associated Press

WASHINGTON — It's a mystery even for researchers at the Smithsonian Institution: What happened to the huge crowds at the National Air and Space Museum?

The estimated number of visitors to the museum plunged to about 5 million in 2006 from a six-year high of 9.4 million in 2003, according to the latest attendance report from the museum complex. And the decline has been far sharper than that of the overall Smithsonian, which includes 18 museums and the National Zoo.

Last year, attendance at what has been one of the world's most-visited museums fell below that of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, which features fossils and the Hope diamond. Museum officials say this is the only instance in recent memory in which the Air and Space Museum trailed the history museum.

One explanation for the downturn could be that the museum hasn't opened a major gallery since 2003. Construction near the museum may have also kept some visitors away, officials said.

Another possible factor in the decline could be the museum's annex, the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, which opened in Chantilly, Va., in 2003. It drew 1.6 million visitors in 2004, its first full year of operation, and about 1 million last year -- visitors who might be ignoring the annex's sister museum in Washington. "That's possible, although we'd like to think that you need to see both facilities to really get the whole sweeping history of flight that we present," said Peter Golkin, a spokesman for the Air and Space Museum. "It's one collection that's in two locations."

The attendance slump comes amid flat attendance at museums nationwide and an overall, though less stunning, decline at the Smithsonian Institution complex.

Overall, Smithsonian attendance has fallen 27% since 2001, compared with the Air and Space Museum's decline of 46% in the same period. But the Air and Space Museum is still one of the most visited museums in the nation.

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