Closed museum gets more visitors than when it was open

Saturday, March 3rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Being closed for remodeling hardly has kept visitors away from the world's biggest collection of American art.

In fact, thanks to the Internet, more people are gazing at a broader display of the 38,000-plus objects from the Smithsonian American Art Museum than the public could before the museum shut its doors in January 2000.

In December 1999, the last month it was open, 54,099 visitors came to the museum _ a solemn, classical-looking structure marked by a brightly painted statue, bigger than life, of a red-shirted cowboy on a bucking bronco.

Last December, the museum's Web site _ _ registered visits from 57,970 computers, compared with 35,950 in December 1999.

Because of the Internet, people are getting a chance to learn more about the exhibits than they could from an expert guide.

``We have two audiences with some overlap,'' said Elizabeth Broun, the museum's director. ``Local people and tourists come for the experience, just as they might go to a movie or a restaurant. The computer audience uses it more as a tool _ a student writing a paper, or a mother having fun with the kids.''

Housed in the Old Patent Office, where President Lincoln held his last inaugural ball, the museum is a prime example of American architecture _ one of the finest early structures in the capital. It is due to reopen with more exhibition space in the fall of 2004.

Museum visitors could see a range of what American artists have produced _ from pictures by the Peale family, who rivaled Gilbert Stuart in their portraits of George Washington, to the current work of Korean-American artist Nam June Paik. Paik's ``Technology'' is a work that includes 25 video monitors, all turned on at once, and three laserdisc players.

Online visitors can see a lot more than what used to hang on the walls.

For example, the museum could display fewer than 1,000 photos, paintings, sculptures and other artifacts. During the renovation, online visitors can download 16 virtual exhibits and 4,000 objects at any time.

Broun hopes to have 10,000 objects online by the end of the year.

Children, often bored in an actual museum, can click on computer links designed with them in mind. The Web site offers ''1001 Days and Nights of American Art,'' a daily calendar for the current month with oddities, both serious and whimsical.

``We like to think of it as the icing on the cake _ and you don't have to eat your spinach first,'' Broun said in an interview this week.

The icon for Feb. 13 consisted of a toothbrush and a set of teeth. It called up a suggestion that Valentine's Day might involve some kissing, and a poster entitled ``End Bad Breath.'' It was an anti-war poster from the Vietnam era, showing Uncle Sam with missiles in place of teeth.

For Valentine's Day itself, clicking on a cupid icon brought up a 200-year-old painting of an attractive young woman showing a bit of cleavage. The caption explained that the artist was America's foremost miniaturist of the 1700s. It also invited viewers to a branch of the museum that is still open, the Renwick Gallery near the White House, where facilities were set up for visitors to design their own cards.

``After we do this sort of thing the three years we're closed, we'll probably try something different,'' Broun said.

One link calls up ``Ask Joan of Art.'' It promises answers within two weeks to any question on American art, with a list of books for further exploration. It is run by Joan Stahl, administrator of the museum's image collections, and receives 500 to 600 queries a month.