At African-American History Museum, Visitor 'Dwell Time' Is Off The Charts

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The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in Washington, D.C., in late September. Smithsonian staff expected it to be popular but didn't predict that visitors would be staying so long.
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When the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in September, Associate Director Beverly Morgan-Welch expected a lot of visitors.

But she didn't expect how long people would stay once they got in. Museum experts call that "dwell time."

"The normal dwell time for most museums is an hour 45 minutes to two hours," says Morgan-Welch. "Our dwell time can go to six."

With visitors staying six hours, it's impossible for the museum to let in more people. And since passes are sold out until spring, people can't just stay for a couple of hours and come back the next day.

"It's the best, most difficult problem I've ever faced in a museum," Morgan-Welch says with a laugh.

On any given day of the week, the museum is packed. People of all ages wait in zig-zagging lines to get into the ground floor history galleries, to enter the cafe and gift shop.

The lines pour outside the building, too. Since it opened, the museum has been handing out free timed passes online. Those are now booked through March 2017, so to accommodate more people, the museum hands out a limited number of same-day passes each day for people who weren't able to claim a pass in advance online.

That's how Washington, D.C., resident Sesi Asamoa got in. Her friends and family told her to consider getting there as early as 6 a.m. "First I gasped," she says. "But then I said, 'You know what, if that's what I have to do, I'll do it.' It's worth it."

Morgan-Welch says the lines begin before dawn.

"People have come and arrived here as early as 3:00 or 3:30 in the morning," she says. "Literally there are days when I come into the museum, sunglasses on, it could be overcast I'm looking down because I don't want to look at the people standing in line. It is heartbreaking."

Morgan-Welch does not encourage hopeful visitors to camp out for same-day passes. In fact, to avoid having people wait outside in the winter, the museum is planning to offer same-day and next-day passes online — just like other passes. The museum will reopen timed entry passes for the spring and summer in the coming weeks as well.

Morgan-Welch also says people shouldn't reserve entry passes online if they can't fully commit to using them.

"These time passes are free," she explains. "So whenever you give something for free, people take more than they can use."

Flora Lindsay-Boston, a first-time museum visitor, doesn't mind waiting in lines for exhibits or to get into the museum. "I wouldn't wait in line for a new iPhone," she says. " I wouldn't wait in line for some tennis shoes. That's just material things. This is history."

The museum has been attracting all sorts of visitors, but it is a special place for African-Americans. The wait for this museum began long before the lines — a national African-American museum was first proposed in 1915.

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