WASHINGTON — The International Spy Museum, one of the most popular attractions in the nation’s capital over the past decade, is considering a move to a historic library that would give it more space for exhibits and a link to the city’s convention center.
Museum officials told The Associated Press on Monday they will propose a redevelopment of Washington’s historic Carnegie Library with the city’s convention center authority, Events DC. The project would include new 40,000-square-foot underground space for exhibits and a new glass pavilion to house a District of Columbia visitors center, cafe and museum store.
Peter Earnest, the museum’s executive director and a former CIA agent, said the Spy Museum has outgrown its space since opening in 2002 in downtown Washington.
“We’re looking long term. By moving to a new location, we will get more space,” which is especially needed for temporary and changing exhibits, Earnest said. “That’s actually one of the reasons people go back to museums because there’s an exhibit for usually a limited period of time for something interesting.”
The Spy Museum holds the largest collection of international espionage artifacts ever placed on public display, according to museum officials. It broke the mold for Washington museums by charging admission fees of $19.95 in a city accustomed to free admission at the Smithsonian Institution museums on the National Mall.
Since opening, the Spy Museum has drawn 600,000 to 700,000 visitors per year, with crowds sometimes lining up outside, waiting to get a glimpse of spy gear and once-secret stories from the CIA, Russia and elsewhere.
Museum Founder Milton Maltz would fund much of the multi-million-dollar redevelopment cost for the historic library site, though officials did not release a specific figure. In a statement Monday, he said the Spy Museum represents his family’s history as the children of immigrants.
“Wars have historically been won or lost because of intelligence, and this museum enlightens the American public on the activities conducted by the brave men and women who serve in the various intelligence agencies,” he said.
The new museum site would serve as an anchor for a growing entertainment and cultural district, said Gregory O’Dell, president and CEO of Events DC. The area is close to a new convention hotel under construction and the massive City Center retail, office and housing development being built in downtown Washington.
The museum would share the building with the Historical Society of Washington, which will have a new gallery and a research library with collections on the city’s history.
Two previous attempts to make the former library a museum have failed. The historical society opened the $20 million City Museum at the site in 2003, exploring the city’s history, but it closed less than two years later because of funding shortfalls. Later plans called for a National Music Center museum at the site, but that idea fell through in 2008.
The privately held Spy Museum, owned by the Cleveland-based Malrite Co., is considering a conversion to make the museum a stand-alone nonprofit organization as part of the move. Maltz wants to “gift” the museum to the community, Earnest said.
“They realize it’s an important institution and want it to go on,” he said. “They think the best way to assure that is to give it to the community.”
The museum could be funded with an endowment, private fundraising and visitor revenues in the future, but details on the financial structure have not yet been determined.
With a larger space as the primary tenant of a building secured by a 99-year lease, Earnest said the museum’s “prospects for long-term sustainability are much greater.”
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