News & Politics

The National Children’s Museum Finally Finds a New Home in DC

The beleaguered institution will reopen in the Reagan Building in March 2019.

The museum's third home will take up 33,000 square feet in the Ronald Reagan Building. Photograph via iStock.

The National Children’s Museum will reopen March 2019 inside the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center at 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, Northwest. The new space will be the beleaguered institution’s third home since its 1974 debut as a low-tech, hands-on oasis of creative learning in an old nunnery behind Union Station.

The museum will occupy 33,000 square feet in a former steakhouse. Part of that space can be opened to create a two-story atrium with a 60-foot ceiling, allowing designers “to do something really magical,” says Crystal Bowyer, the museum’s new young president and CEO.  At its 2019 opening, the museum will feature temporary, loaner exhibits from other institutions alongside its own. That will reduce early costs and “keep things fresh and new” for visitors, who are expected to be 70 percent locals and 30 percent tourists.

The new digs are likely the museum’s last shot at success. Founded as the Capital Children’s Museum, officials there got Congress to change its name to the loftier sounding National Children’s Museum in 2003. Developer Jim Abdo bought the property the next year, and the museum planned a move to L’Enfant Plaza that never materialized. It became a virtual museum for the next few years before National Harbor lured it to Maryland, where it opened in 2009, first in a preview spot, then in a small storefront.

Three years ago, amid much mutual rancor, NCM trustees abandoned National Harbor. They had grown weary of battling developer-landlord Peterson Companies over money and real estate; underwhelmed Prince George’s County finance officials had likewise tired of the museum’s plea for higher subsidies. Last December, at the urging of Councilmember Jack Evans, the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities gave the museum $1 million to help it reopen in the District.

Bowyer, 35, has been on the job since June. The daughter of a math teacher, she has a master’s degree in nonprofit administration and came from Chicago’s renowned Museum of Science and Industry, where she focused on the lifeblood portfolios: fundraising, marketing, membership, and external affairs.

She hopes to raise $5 million in her first year here, and $25 million over five years. That’s as specific as she’ll get about money. She won’t disclose the “reasonable” rent the museum will paying the federal government on its ten-year Reagan Building lease, and her salary won’t be revealed until NCM’s next IRS filing, which could be mid-2018 or later.

Bowyer has been working out of shared office space, appropriate for an institution she views as a “scrappy” and frugal startup. She plans to spend a third to half her time cultivating major donors, focusing on individual and corporate support, which she notes is a faster process than applying for government grants.  Given her Chicago experience with well-heeled givers, she will look far beyond Washington for money, staff and trustees for a board that will triple in size.

The director just signed her first hire, an “exhibits person” to showcase the museum’s all-important STEAM-fueled visuals and hands-on activities: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math. Like the best exhibit people, she said, this local woman has a strong background in education, entertainment and theater.

Bowyer and the board hiked the top target age from eight to 12 to attract more families seven days a week. Admission is set at $10.95 for everyone over a year old, except NCM members, who will get in free. (No price has yet been set for a membership.)

She believes she can compete with nearby no-admission Smithsonian museums with established child-centric programs, After all, she said, such kid-friendly institutions as the National Geographic, International Spy Museum and National Building Museum draw hundreds of thousands of paying guests.

“We will be more focused on early childhood” than other local attractions, she says. “I just think Washington deserves an incredible show-stopping children’s museum.”

While National Harbor was hard to reach by public transit, the Reagan Building is near the Federal Triangle and Metro Center subway stations and several bus lines. There is room for school bus pickup and drop-off, but the on-site parking garage remains pricey and slow since all vehicles entering the federal facility are inspected. The museum will have its own entrance and security off Wilson Plaza, to prevent pedestrian back-ups like those at the Reagan Building’s metal detectors.

The contrast between Bowyer’s old and new employers couldn’t be starker. The MSI was founded in 1933. Its 400,000 square feet and five-story rotunda make it one of the world’s largest science museums. Two years ago it reported nearly $205 million in net assets.

The NCM had just $531,493 in assets as of mid-2016, after burning through the $24 million developer Abdo paid 13 years ago.  Expenses included some $2 million in design fees to the firm of modernist architect Cesar Pelli for never-built edifices at L’Enfant Plaza and in National Harbor.

NCM trustees blamed their financial woes on the recession and the ill-fated move to Maryland. Bowyer says the museum’s diminished circumstances present an unusual opportunity. “Building a museum from scratch,” she says in a statement, “allows us to be very intentional, creating an interactive space the whole family can enjoy. Visitors deserve a special experience, and we look forward to opening our doors to the world very soon.”