Lessons Learned at the CVC


During my second-to-last week of work at the Capitol Visitor Center, I found myself delighting in the relatively low numbers: only 3,000 or 4,000 visitors per day, compared with 9,000 or 10,000 at our peak in the spring! The decrease in visitation meant that the people who did come enjoyed shorter lines and wait times, smaller tour groups, and the opportunity to see the Old Supreme Court Chamber (which is off-limits during times of greater crowding for safety reasons). On behalf of the visitors, I was ecstatic.

Then it occurred to me. These lower numbers were the reason my job was about to end.

Hired in late winter as a temporary Visitor Assistant to help with increased visitation during the busy season, I’d known my stint here would be over at the end of the summer. My last day in this position was four days ago. Though I lamented having to leave, I still couldn’t help but be happy for the visitors who showed up during a less crowded time of year.

These visitors included my parents, who came to see me at work on my second-to-last day. They spent two and a half hours at the Capitol, and they would have stayed longer had it not been closing time when they left. They spent an hour getting a private tour from me (for which my supervisor ever-so-kindly let me take time during my workday), wandered Exhibition Hall for 20 minutes, saw the introductory film (and saw me in action, working the theatre and introducing the movie), visited the current Senate and House Chambers, and went back to Exhibition Hall until 4:28.

Afterward, my mother raved about Exhibition Hall, the space in the CVC that serves as a museum with exhibits that visitors can peruse on their own. Exhibition Hall “made me want to read a good history book,” she reported.

My mother’s enthusiasm leads me to three lessons learned during my six months at the Capitol that I will apply now as a Weekly Museum Visitor.

1. Appreciate the excitement. People come to the Capitol from all over the world because they are excited to tilt their heads back at 90 degree angles and stare up at the domed ceiling of the Rotunda. Or they are excited to watch a live debate in Congress or find their state statue or spend time with their grandchildren. My mom was excited to read every (literally, every) bit of text in Exhibition Hall and nurture her inner history buff. On one of my last days, a group from Italy was giddy to see the art of Constantino Brumidi.

I don’t believe it’s my job to try to artificially conjure up excitement in myself where there isn’t any, but I do strongly believe that museum professionals must remember to appreciate the enthusiasm their visitors feel. I am about to visit a new museum every week, and not every museum is going to address one of my passions. But they all address someone’s passion, and I can appreciate that passion whether or not I feel it myself.

During my first round of Weekly Museum Visits, a few moments stick out as being most exciting to me: photographing some extraordinarily cooperative butterflies and dragonflies at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Beholding the visionary art environment known as the Watts Towers. Walking the labyrinth at Brookside Gardens (shown in the header photo on this blog). Discovering at Hillwood that Marjorie Merriweather Post was a pet lover. Another visitor may have visited the same 40 sites and instead felt a spark of excitement about fire engines, Shakespeare, curtains, or, in the case of my sister, servals.

Dragonfly at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

2. Be prepared. I wouldn’t say I was unprepared for my past museum visits. I checked days and hours of operation in advance, researched whether I’d receive a discount as an American Association of Museums member, learned what was happening and what was on view, located nearby Metro stations, and planned whether I’d go to the museum alone or with others.

Nonetheless, working at the CVC has impressed upon me the importance of being prepared almost to a fault. Many visitors who arrive at the Capitol express unpleasant surprise at the building’s public hours (they start and end earlier than the Mall museums; to someone arriving at 4:25, it’s the end earlier part that sticks out) and the list of prohibited items, or pleasant surprise at the price of a visit (free). This information need not be a surprise to anyone who visits the website, whose homepage includes a video that offers guidelines to people planning to go to the Capitol.

Do other museums’ websites have this kind of video? Do they have games to play, event calendars, information to provide context and whet my appetite? I’m sure I clicked on almost every website for the museums I visited last time around, but this time, I’ll make website perusal a deliberate component of the experience. And now more than ever, I know the importance of reading – in advance – lists of prohibited items.

3. Be aware of where the crowds are. Crowds are not inherently a bad thing. If a place is crowded, there may be a reason that applies just as much to me as to all the other visitors: a free community day to a museum that would otherwise cost money; a special event or festival.

In other cases, choosing a less crowded day or time may vastly add to my experience. I certainly believe this phenomenon is the case at the Capitol, as I described at the beginning of this post. It’s a grim reality that some sites are filled to the brim with visitors, while others struggle to get people in the door. The desire, especially among locals, to avoid busloads of tourists drives such articles as this recent Express piece, which recommends lesser-known alternatives to individuals hoping to avoid crowds at the busiest sites.

As I resume Weekly Museum Visits, I will primarily visit smaller, lesser-known places. I’ve already done most (though not all) of the big and famous museums. But when I do venture out to, say, the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, it will almost certainly be on a weekday morning. (Even if Hurricane Irene hadn’t postponed Sunday’s festivities, I was not planning to attend on such a crowded day.)

Without further ado, the first adventure in Round 2 of Weekly Museum Visits will happen tomorrow!

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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