Kennedy Institute finds if you build it, not everyone will come
Todd Harting, a social studies teacher from Chicago, gushed about his visit to the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, where he admired the late senator’s paintings of sailboats and a reproduction of his memorabilia-filled office.
Harting’s only lament: the replica of the Senate chamber was nearly empty when he filed in to take part in a mock debate on immigration legislation.
“If there had been 100 people, it would have been really cool,” he said. “We only had 15 people.”
The institute, which opened two years ago Friday, is drawing fewer than half the number of visitors as initially projected, a sign it may be struggling to establish itself as a must-see tourist destination in Boston.
When the institute’s officials broke ground on the $78 million museum in 2011, they projected the monument dedicated to Kennedy and his love of the Senate would draw as many as 150,000 visitors annually. But the institute has drawn about 62,000 visitors in each of its first two years, a figure that includes about 16,000 students per year.
The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, located next door and dedicated to the most prominent member of the Kennedy family, draws about 200,000 visitors annually.
Jean F. MacCormack, president of the Edward Kennedy institute, said the organization is pleased with the number of visitors it is drawing.
Acknowledging that the museum on Columbia Point in Dorchester is out of the way for some tourists, she said the initial projections may have been based on more easily accessible attractions like the Museum of Fine Arts.
MacCormack said the institute’s leaders still believe they can draw as many as 100,000 visitors annually, and have a plan to increase visits by 20 percent this year through better marketing and more bookings with tour companies.
“People still say, ‘Gee, I didn’t know you were there,’ ” she said. “ ‘I’ll have to come.’ ”
Still, the lower-than-expected turnout points to several of the challenges the institute faces, two years after it opened with a ceremony attended by president Barack Obama and vice president Joe Biden.
For one, the location on Columbia Point is far from the beaten path that most tourists take when they visit the Freedom Trail or the Rose Kennedy Greenway downtown. The area has also been mired in construction projects for the University of Massachusetts Boston.
More broadly, the institute faces a tough task trying to get members of the public interested in learning about Congress, which has a 24 percent approval rating after years of gridlock and bitter partisanship.
The centerpiece of the institute is a scale replica of the Senate chamber, which allows visitors to play the role of a senator and debate issues like health care.
“It’s just a challenge,” said Frank H. Mackaman, director of the Dirksen Congressional Center, a research institute in Pekin, Ill., that closed its museum dedicated to Senator Everett Dirksen more than a decade ago after it failed to draw crowds. “People don’t go to museums to learn about abstract ideas like lawmaking. They go to see tangible objects.”
Susie Wilkening, a consultant who helps museums broaden their audiences, said the Kennedy institute’s exhibits, which focus on the Senate’s traditions, personalities, and process, seem perfect for students learning about civics.
“The harder job is expanding that reach to more casual visitors,” said Wilkening, who visited the institute shortly after it opened in 2015.
“It needs more emotional content that people can respond to so it becomes more meaningful to them,” Wilkening said. “That is what makes people enjoy museum experiences and makes people come back.”
On a recent weekday afternoon, small clusters of families and schoolchildren strolled through the halls of the sleek, low-slung building, using tablet computers to guide them through exhibits about the 1,700 people who have served in the Senate and about Kennedy’s record on education, civil rights, and other issues.
In the Senate chamber, they sat at desks and, with the help of three energetic docents, debated and voted on the Bridge Act, a real piece of federal legislation that would protect from deportation certain immigrants who entered the country illegally as children.
“It would be great if every child in America could experience it,” said Marlene Harting, Todd Harting’s wife. “They’d really learn.”
Though the institute honors a famously liberal lawmaker loathed by the political right, its board is bipartisan. And MacCormack said the museum’s focus on the nobility of public service is even more vital in the era of President Trump.
“The current state of political affairs is good for our business,” she said. “We’ve got more people coming to us and saying, ‘Do you do any democracy engagement workshops?’ There’s lots of opportunities for us to expand.”
Former senator Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican who serves on the board, said the institute should appeal to tourists and to members of Congress themselves.
“The message of the place is very positive, especially in these times when we have so much partisanship,” he said.
The institute received an initial — and controversial — infusion of $38 million in federal funding, and is buoyed by a $60 million endowment that helps pay for operating expenses. Tickets cost $14 for Massachusetts residents, with a $2 discount to those who have recently visited the JFK Library.
The lower-than-forecast ticket sales haven’t hurt the institute’s overall financial health, MacCormack said, adding that the organization also relies on private fund-raising, corporate rentals of the building, memberships, and gift shop sales.
Within two years, the institute hopes to “break even on a cash-level basis,” said James J. Karam, the chairman of the board. “We’ve had some good growth, and we’re pleased with what’s taking place.”