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Has Museum’s Time Come?

Women’s History Institution Gains Momentum

As a young newlywed with a freshly minted master’s degree living in Alaska in the early 1980s, Karen Staser dreamed of having it all: a rewarding career and a full family life.

But after the birth of her first child, Staser’s father-in-law, a retired two-star Army general, insisted that her future role was already historically predestined: that of wife and mother.

“I bet you can’t name five women in history who have done anything important,” she remembers him telling her.

To her embarrassment, Staser drew a blank.

“I was crushed,” she recalled.

That challenge, however, launched Staser on an effort to learn more about women’s history. And when her husband’s job relocated the family to Washington, D.C., in 1990, she became an intrepid museum-goer.

What Staser found, however, was a glaring lack of exhibits related to women’s contributions. “All this history I had learned was missing from the Smithsonian,” she said. So Staser set about researching what was being done to rectify what she considered a major omission. The answer: nothing.

By 1996, Staser, armed with an abundant supply of enthusiasm, had founded the National Women’s History Museum — a nonpartisan educational institution formed to work toward the goal of a brick and mortar museum. The nonprofit group now has offices in Annandale, Va., and an attractive CyberMuseum. In recent years, it has launched temporary exhibits on women and World War II and women in espionage.

“We don’t want to portray women as victims,” said Susan Jollie, president and CEO of the group. “We want to portray women as having contributed in important ways in the development of the society we see today.”

A decade after it was proposed, the national women’s museum, a concept recommended in the late 1990s by a presidential commission, is still unrealized. And Staser has long since returned to Alaska with her husband, though she remains an honorary board member.

But the idea’s time has finally come, said Judy Larson, director of D.C.’s National Museum of Women in the Arts, which features the work of female artists. She pointed to the Women’s Museum in Dallas, which opened in 2000, and the International Museum of Women in San Francisco, which is currently in the planning stages, as representative of a national trend toward such museums.

Now with the Senate passage earlier this month of a bill designating the Old Post Office building Pavilion Annex on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest as the site of the proposed museum, museum officials and supporters are hopeful it will soon become reality.

“We need it, we absolutely need it,” said Larson, adding that the NWHM would be an excellent partner for the women in the arts museum. Women need “a little extra attention. I wish they didn’t, but they do.”

Finding a Home

Despite raising “millions” of dollars over the years for administrative and operating costs, NWHM organizers said a high-profile site is a prerequisite to launching the high-dollar fundraising campaign needed for the proposed $150 million museum. The 100,000-square-foot annex, built on federal property in 1992 as part of an ongoing effort to redevelop the Old Post Office building, has been vacant for a decade since private developers declared bankruptcy and defaulted on loans. The General Services Administration controls the site.

“This is a great use for an empty federal building, and it makes good fiscal sense,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chief sponsor of the bill directing the GSA to give the museum a 99-year lease on the annex, said in a statement.

At the same time, however, with the Office of Management and Budget’s authorization, GSA is currently evaluating responses to a recent request for interest to develop either the Old Post Office building, which currently houses some federal workers and a food court, the annex or the entire complex. The National Women’s History Museum has also submitted a proposal for the annex as part of the RFI, Jollie said. “We understand that many of [the other proposals] have no specific need for the annex” and that the NWHM had “been expressly included in some [other] submissions.”

Meanwhile, despite sailing through the Senate with the support of all 14 female Senators, the legislation’s fate in the House remains unclear. Last year, a similar bill also passed the Senate but died in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee due to objections by ranking member Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). Both Oberstar and Norton support the idea of the National Women’s History Museum but are opposed to designating federal sites for private sector use without a competitive process.

“The precedent of allowing or assigning a property without going through the competitive process opens up a huge can of worms,” Norton said in an interview. Norton, a self-described “hard-core feminist,” insisted she was “not opposed to this site” for the museum but that in her view, “you do not designate a group as part of the process of developing a site.”

Jollie said that Congress had a track record of designating federal sites to private groups for use. She pointed to the National Building Museum and the yet-to-be constructed National Law Enforcement Museum as having received “federal property or buildings” through Congressional fiat.

A GSA spokesman said that the agency must defer to Congress’ decision on the matter. GSA had earlier recommended that the Old Post Office building complex be developed as a hotel or be used as federal office space.

“At one time the GSA considered the Old Post Office building one site and the structures inseparable,” Jollie said. “They have altered that position. … The legislation has in some respects helped moved the ball forward.”

Mary Kerr, a spokeswoman for Oberstar, said if the same bill were to be referred to the Transportation panel again (and the one that the Senate passed last month is nearly identical to the bill introduced in the 108th Congress), then Oberstar would “oppose it for the same reasons.”

That leaves the House’s chief backer of transferring the annex to the museum, Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), looking for “the [legislative] path of least resistance,” according to her spokesman, Rob Nichols, who said he was “not 100 hundred percent sure” whether the Senate bill had the necessary support in the House, or even if the House would take it up when Congress returns next month. (A Pryce bill that would convey the annex to the NWHM outright was introduced in March, but it remains in the Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on economic development, public buildings and emergency management, which has oversight of the GSA. Norton is the subcommittee’s ranking member.)

Nichols added that Pryce is exploring whether the Senate bill could potentially be referred to a different committee, such as Government Reform, where it might “move more unencumbered” — a possibility one Transportation committee aide called “extremely unusual.”

The NWHM is no stranger to controversy. One of its earliest initiatives was to lobby for and raise funds to move a statue of white suffragists Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton from the Capitol Crypt (where it had been relegated for some 75 years) to the Rotunda. The effort, although successful, raised the ire of the National Political Congress of Black Women (and other black groups), which withdrew its support for the move unless abolitionist and suffragist Sojourner Truth be added to a blank space on the statue. The controversy attracted national media attention.

So far Truth remains absent from the statue, though the NWHM “has agreed that it would be appropriate to include a depiction of Sojourner Truth if that was possible to do,” Jollie said, adding that her group had signed its name to letters in support of legislative efforts that would accomplish the addition.

Other Challenges

Should the NWHM’s effort to secure the site prove successful, fundraising will remain a concerted challenge in a city that boasts nearly 80 different museums ranging from international draws like the National Air and Space Museum to more niche offerings such as the Black Fashion Museum, said local tourism and museum officials.

Within the past five years, the D.C. metropolitan area has had to absorb some $3.2 billion in capital campaigns by various cultural organizations, said Cultural Tourism D.C. Executive Director and CEO Angie Fox. Coupled with the uncertainties of the post-Sept. 11, 2001, post-tech-boom era, that means an increasingly taxed pool of potential big-dollar donors, she said.

“I get a mailing every single day, including from the Smithsonian, looking for money,” Fox said. “There are a lot of different entities that want to preserve the memory of what they are doing.”

Even established institutions, such as the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the American Red Cross, have had to halt projects — the Corcoran’s efforts to build a new Frank Gehry wing have been suspended, and the Red Cross recently shelved concept plans to build an on-site history museum due to budget constraints and low attendance at its visitor center. Likewise, the City Museum, in existence for only 18 months, was forced to shutter its doors last November due to lack of funds, though plans are in the works to reopen at a yet-to-be-determined date.

Still, some nonfederal newcomers to the D.C. museum scene, such as the Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences and the International Spy Museum, have done well despite operating outside of the Smithsonian Institution system and charging entrance fees. (Jollie said the NWHM does not expect to charge for admittance.)

According to Fox, the question for the proposed National Women’s History Museum will be: “Can they create a Spy Museum-like experience?”

“The opportunity to have an interesting, well programmed museum … is always of interest,” she said.

“The problem in many nonprofits is sort of a euphoric vision without a sense of reality,” said John Hazel, vice chairman of the Corcoran’s board of trustees. “I don’t want to rain on the other guy’s parade, but it’s not an easy task. … It’s a very difficult environment for new museums.”

Despite the obvious challenges, NWHM organizers believe there is a market for their museum — to the tune of attracting an estimated 1.5 million visitors per year. Moreover, recent reports indicate that tourism is booming in the District.

“We think the subject matter of women and history is really a big draw,” Jollie asserted.

The prime Pennsylvania Avenue location, she said, will be key to the museum’s success. Jollie pointed to the national coalition of nearly 30 educational and women’s groups that back the museum and the prominent women, such as former astronaut Sally Ride and actress Meryl Streep, who are involved in promoting membership drives, as examples of the broad support it enjoys. In the 108th Congress, she noted, all female Members, including Norton, had joined the museum’s honorary board of directors.

Still, the physical museum is very much in the early planning stages. Under the legislation, the museum would have five years before it began paying a fair market rent for the space, and Jollie estimated that it would take three to five years until the museum could open its doors if it received the annex. Possible themes for the museum, which would focus on both traditional and nontraditional female roles in a political and social historical context, could include “motherhood and apple pie” and women as entrepreneurs, she said.

“It took 70 some years for women to get the vote,” Jollie said. “Hopefully we’ve reached a point in our society where some of these things will come a little more quickly.”

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