Passes for new Smithsonian museum opening weekend gone in minutes

WASHINGTON — Free timed entry passes to the opening weekend for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture quickly disappeared after they became available Saturday morning — leading some frustrated pass-seekers to vent on social media.

A limited amount of passes, allowing visitors hourly, 15-minute entry windows for the Sept. 24-25 opening weekend, became available online and by phone at 9 a.m., but the passes went like hotcakes. In fact, by 9:14 a.m., all the passes for Sept. 24 — when President Barack Obama is expected to headline a formal dedication ceremony — were gone.

“We’re very sorry for that,” said Beverly Morgan-Welch, the museum’s associate director for external affairs. “Between 9 and 9:15 a.m. we had more than 20 times the average number of visitors … and as we were updating the website, it may have caused some users to experience a slowness or an error in attempting to access the information … but tens of thousands were able to access the site.”

On Saturday, users complained to WTOP, and on the museum’s website and Facebook page that they couldn’t find a link online to reserve passes.

Others, like Denise Bradley-Walker, railed on Facebook that she booked a flight to attend the opening only to find them “sold out.” “Major disappointment,” she wrote in a post on the museum’s Facebook page.

The museum has issued free timed passes to ease the rush of visitors. Each person can request up to six passes and can stay at the museum for as long as they like, once inside the museum. The passes are expected to be around for at least a year.

“We are committed to a 12-month pilot program to see how this works because we have to make sure everybody is safe and secure, and able to get into the museum easily,” Morgan-Welch said, and added that NMAAHC staff members were psyched at the level of demand.

“We’re thrilled, we’re delighted; we know we are loved and long-awaited,” she said. “The demand for entry to this museum is more than we could have anticipated.”

Visitors to the museum have been warned to expect huge crowds and a thorough security screening. But Morgan-Welch said there were other considerations, like how long people will stay in a place that has many artifacts that may be overwhelming to see — such as the silk and lace shawl given to abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman, and a slave cabin brought from South Carolina and rebuilt inside the museum.

“We’ve trained our visitors’ services staff — more than 250 of them — to help people who are going to be overwhelmed. … You can’t just say, ‘Move along.’ We are so concerned about the comfort and giving people the time to take this in,” Morgan-Welch said.

At the time this story was published, passes were still available for NMAAHC online through October, though those reservations were going fast. Children and infants will also need passes in order to gain entry.

Morgan-Welch said that some of the free passes have shown up for sale online, but noted that such passes might not be honored because each ticket has an individual code.

“That’s why we only released them through October,” she said. “We didn’t want people abusing this system and trying to sell these free passes.”

Those unable to get a timed entry pass for the opening weekend need not despair.

At 9 a.m. Sept. 24, President Obama will headline a formal dedication ceremony for the museum, outdoors on the side of the building facing Madison Avenue. No tickets are required for this, but there is limited seating for those who aren’t invited guests. There will be Jumbotrons, and the event will be livestreamed on NMAAHC’s website.

Morgan-Welch said security will be available to help people with physical disabilities get as close as possible.

Also, from Sept. 23 through Sept. 25, the museum will host a Freedom Sounds Festival, which is free and open to the public. The event will include musical performances, appearances by notable individuals such as activist-poet Sonia Sanchez, storytelling, spoken word and a drum circle. There will be two tented stages offering local, national and international performers.

On Sept. 26, same-day passes — limited to four per visitor — will be available at the museum and distributed at 9:15 a.m. Timed passes for November and December will be released in September.

To request passes by phone, call 800-514-3849 or 919-653-0443 from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 8 p.m. Sunday. Passes are also available online.

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