People still talk about the dust cloud that descended at the City Museum during its dedication in May. “Somebody turned on the ventilating system, and it hadn’t been properly cleaned out,” says Charles Atherton, a former board member of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., which oversees the museum. “And a great cloud of dust settled on Mrs. Norton”—that’s D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton—”when she was talking.” The word “anthrax” crossed a few minds, but the notion that terrorists would target the District’s political and municipal treasures through the museum’s heating and cooling ducts was just too far-fetched. “Everybody took it very calmly,” says Atherton.

Five months after the City Museum opened, though, cloudiness is an increasingly apt metaphor for its prospects. Despite an aggressive publicity campaign and a location in the old Carnegie Library, across the street from the new Washington Convention Center, the fledgling museum is struggling to establish an identity. While its planners once boasted that it would draw 300,000 visitors annually, the museum is actually on pace to draw barely 50,000 patrons before next May. On many days, fewer than 100 people walk through its doors.

The abysmal attendance could spell disaster for a start-up institution that’s currently dependent on entry fees for its survival. A capital campaign and the sale of the Heurich House museum netted the Historical Society $24 million for the museum project, $23 million of which has been spent or earmarked. But the City Museum still relies on admissions and retail-shop purchases for $800,000 of its newly slashed $2.5 million operating budget. Additional fundraising and lobbying of city hall could supplement that number—and Historical Society officials confirm that museum management intends to meet with Mayor Anthony A. Williams in coming weeks to ask for annual financial support from the District. “We would like to have them step up in a fairly major way—$500,000 a year,” says Bert T. Edwards, treasurer for the Historical Society’s board of trustees.

The budget squeeze has also forced Historical Society President and CEO Barbara Franco to lay off five of the museum’s 30 staffers, including the vice president for programs. Remaining employees have been repeatedly urged by museum brass to pass out coupons at the convention center for discounts on the museum’s admission charge. A recent all-staff meeting to air concerns ended in a shouting match.

Meanwhile, the museum’s signage is inadequate, marketing outlays have been curtailed, new exhibitions might be delayed, and that ventilating system—part of a $12.3 million renovation of the 1903 beaux-arts library—still needs expensive retrofitting. The system failed so spectacularly at controlling this summer’s humidity that three rare maps lent by museum donor Albert Small had to be sent out for restoration.

“The ramp-up is going to be slower [than predicted],” says Franco. “Will we get there? Absolutely.”

The City Museum carries a heavy symbolic weight for the District, which has chafed for decades at its identification with federal bureaucracy and neoclassical architecture. Championed by political figures from Mayor Williams to First Lady Laura Bush and funded by donations from a range of local foundations and glitterati, the museum strives to present Washington as a full-blooded city with its own history—arguing, as one of its slogans puts it, that “Real People Live Here.” Along with neighborhood-themed rooms, a library and archaeology lab, and walk-in installations on topics such as the first D.C. vote for U.S. president, the museum features layered “collages” of Washington artifacts that run from a Woodie’s hatbox to a photo of local rocker Ian MacKaye to a ticket to Walter Johnson’s first Senators’ game. The floor of the museum’s most popular gallery also contains a backlit aerial photo of the city that patrons can walk on and use to locate their own neighborhoods.

But so far, those citizens—as well as tourists and conventioneers—have yet to locate the museum itself. “We’ve missed the boat on the appeal to Washington residents,” says Edwards, who is also executive director of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Historical Trust Accounting. “I have people in my own office who have never heard of the museum.” And with museum management submitting a deficit budget last month, time is dwindling for the District’s residents to catch on, and for the city and foundations to further aid the project.

“It might survive if somebody forced money into it,” says one museum staffer, who requested anonymity for fear of

retribution. “But schoolkids are the only ones who seem to enjoy it. It’s never going

to be self-sustaining.”

City Museum planners are at a loss to explain why they assumed tourists, who can spend all day at Mall museums for free, would flock to Mount Vernon Square for a city museum with an admission fee—which jumps from $3 to $7 if you want to see its noisy, confusing, 23-minute introductory film, termed “an embarrassment” by Washington Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey. Franco blames terrorism, the sluggish economy, the sniper attacks of last year, and the Iraq war for the museum’s poor attendance performance.

But Edwards isn’t convinced. “The Smithsonian is having the greatest year it’s ever had,” he says. “The hotel industry locally is coming back handsomely.” The National Air and Space Museum announced earlier this month that it had broken attendance records in fiscal year 2003.

In truth, there was always a touch of fantasy about the Historical Society’s planning for the museum. The projections for at least 300,000 visitors annually, made before Sept. 11, 2001, by PKF Consulting of Alexandria, were inexplicably never revised downward before this May’s opening—despite the emergence of all the negative factors Franco now cites.

Optimism was such that the museum’s fundraisers, who had netted $19 million by mid-2002, neglected to create a separate endowment to provide a cushion for operating expenses—which range from lighting and security to salaries, educational programs, and other essentials of a healthy museum. “The thinking was that the museum was to have an endowment—that it wasn’t simply to live on the attendance,” says Duncan H. Cameron, a Historical Society board member. “That was always in the picture from the beginning, and it still lies ahead of us to do that.”

The tortoise-over-hare approach also extended to the museum’s “soft” opening, under which its neighborhood exhibitions (on Chinatown and Mount Vernon Square), retail shop, and cafe were slated to open months after the dedication ceremonies. In addition, the museum failed to hire a chief financial officer or a retail director until March of this year, leading to a “lack of clarity in the budget,” as one staffer delicately puts it.

Another issue still to be resolved: pedestrian friendliness. There are no crosswalks directly opposite either of the museum’s entrances. Would-be patrons must brave whizzing cars to cross Mount Vernon Place or New York Avenue, thoroughfares that do more to sequester the building than to serve it. Like the new convention center, the museum also has yet to be incorporated into maps at nearby Metro stops or into sidewalk directional signs leading up from Chinatown. On-site parking is nonexistent, and passers-by seem confused by the demure and occasionally torn titling banners outside the museum.

“I have heard over and over again from people standing right there [in front of the building]: ‘Where is the City Museum?’” says Leslie Shapiro, another Historical Society board member. Adds Edwards: “There are thousands of cars going out New York Avenue [past the museum], but we have lousy signage. The external part of the museum doesn’t look any different than it did for the 20 years it was a rat retirement home.”

Shireen Dodson, chair of the Historical Society board, insists that the museum’s difficulties lie right on the industry’s learning curve. “This is all part of a natural flow of opening an organization,” she says, adding that the museum is embarking on a new phase of planning. Still, Dodson says that further layoffs have not been ruled out—a message that has already sunk in with the museum’s employees. “We’re all looking for other jobs,” says one staffer.

The museum’s ad campaign, which ran in Metro cars and stations as well as in area movie theaters before shows, ended in September. And prospects for boosting attendance took a hit with the museum’s new budget, which cuts marketing expenditures from $100,000 to $45,000—just enough to cover hotel-rack cards and mentions in visitor magazines, according to Franco. She says the museum will concentrate on attracting school and seniors groups as well as conventioneers to boost attendance to between 75,000 to 100,000 annually, a level the new budget requires to break even.

The good news is that the museum is not in imminent danger of financial collapse. Edwards says that despite the current operating deficit, the museum has enough cash to last at least into January, and that the Historical Society board has started a push to raise $500,000 in the next 90 days for operating expenses—an effort that’s separate from the appeal to Mayor Williams. If these don’t work, Edwards suggests more drastic measures, such as taking out a general mortgage on the building or completely turning the museum over several days a week to corporate gatherings.

“I would love to see an appropriation [from the city] that’s pretty generous—it’s a city institution, let’s face it,” says Atherton. “I would hope that the city itself could come to recognize that the museum is an extraordinary cultural resource for the people of the District.”

The city may have to, considering that the people themselves haven’t. Whereas cities such as Chicago and New York sport successful city museums, competition for museumgoers from Washington’s plethora of free federal attractions is fierce. A previous attempt at a city museum here closed in 1988, and Baltimore’s City Life Museums shut their doors in 1999 when their annual attendance dipped below 100,000.

And then there’s the long-standing local lassitude about whether Washington’s history is worth celebrating, anyway. E. Ethelbert Miller, director of Howard University’s African-American Resource Center, says that though the museum is crucial to the city’s future, it needs better outreach and sexier programming before the community will respond.

“Am I going to go down on a Saturday morning to see an exhibit about home rule and Walter Fauntroy?” Miller says. “That’s not going to get me out of my pj’s.” CP