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

Nov 3, 2016

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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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

More than 300,000 people have visited the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., since it opened a little more than a month ago, and entrance passes are sold out through March. Museum staff aren't surprised by the number of visitors, but they didn't think so many people would make it an all-day event. Here's NPR's Parth Shah.

PARTH SHAH, BYLINE: The National Museum of African-American History and Culture is packed with people waiting in zig-zagging lines to enter the history galleries, the cafe and the gift shop. The lines pour outside the building, too, with people waiting to get in. Beverly Morgan-Welch is an associate director at the museum. She sees those lines every morning.

BEVERLY MORGAN-WELCH: Literally, there are days when I come into the museum, sunglasses on. It could be overcast. And I am looking down coming in because I don't want to look at the people standing in line. It is heartbreaking.

SHAH: Morgan-Welch says the museum staff expected a lot of visitors. What they didn't expect was how long people would stay once they got in. That's called dwell time.

MORGAN-WELCH: The normal dwell time for most museums has an hour and 45 minutes to two hours. Our dwell time can go to six.

SHAH: Six hours - but with passes sold out till spring, people can't just stay for a couple hours and come back the next day. There's a lot to see in the museum, and a lot of it feels very personal.

MORGAN-WELCH: I've heard people standing and talking to each other and saying this feels like home.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: On small, rural farms...

SHAH: And Joyce Simmons (ph) was on the first floor, standing with her family next to an exhibit about Nat Turner, the enslaved African-American who led a rebellion in Southampton, Va.

JOYCE SIMMONS: We don't live far from Southampton.

SHAH: Does it give you goosebumps?

SIMMONS: Yes, it does because it's like, oh, this is somebody that we can relate to.

SIMMONS: Most museumgoers begin their tour on the ground floor history galleries and work their way up. Flora Lindsay-Boston was on the third floor in a room surrounded by photographs from the 1960s civil rights movement. She says the photos reminded her of her childhood.

FLORA LINDSAY-BOSTON: I went to segregated school and everything, so I want my children to come here and see what our people have sacrificed for them to be where they are.

SHAH: Of course, the museum doesn't keep statistics on the racial makeup of its visitors, and there are many white visitors here, too. But it's clear the pent up demand is in the African-American community.

LINDSAY-BOSTON: It's a long time coming - long time coming.

SHAH: So waiting in line is OK with Lindsay-Boston.

LINDSAY-BOSTON: I wouldn't wait in line for a new iPhone. I wouldn't wait in line for some tennis shoes because that's not - that's just material things. This is history.

SHAH: People spending six hours inside this museum may sound like a problem, but associate director Beverly Morgan-Welch says not really.

MORGAN-WELCH: (Laughter) So it's the best, most difficult problem I've ever faced in a museum.

SHAH: To avoid having people wait outside in the winter, the museum is planning to offer same-day and next-day passes online, along with passes for the spring and summer. Parth Shah, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.