Soon the treasures of the Space Age, from moon rocks to rockets, will stand side by side with Big Macs and Happy Meals.
The world's most popular repository of technology, the National Air and Space Museum, said yesterday that it had signed a multi-million-dollar partnership with the world's biggest restaurant chain, McDonald's, to create a McDonald's-run restaurant within the museum.
It's one more part of the commercializing of the Smithsonian. They're drifting from education to becoming a corporate PR arm... This is just another example of mission creep.
Smithsonian officials said the 10-year agreement could generate as much as $34 million in revenue for the taxpayer-supported museum and could mean tastier food at lower prices.
In exchange, the fast food chain gets a location that's expected to be the busiest McDonald's in the country. In addition to McDonald's usual fare, the facility would offer food from Boston Market and Donato's Pizzeria, two chains owned by McDonald's.
The restaurant will replace the current dining facility, which is run by Guest Services Inc., in the museum's east end. That cafeteria will close on Sept. 10, and there will be no restaurant in the museum for about six months.
The museum will use $3.2 million to upgrade the area before McDonald's moves in next spring. About 10 percent of the money is from public funds, the rest from private sources.
Although museum officials hailed the deal, the agreement renewed criticism that the Smithsonian was polluting its educational mission by permitting corporations and other private-sector interests to trade on its name.
"It's one more part of the commercializing of the Smithsonian," said Gary Ruskin, the executive director of Commercial Alert, a Washington organization that monitors nonprofits. "They're drifting from education to becoming a corporate PR arm. . . . This is just another example of mission creep."
Last month, for example, the Smithsonian-run Museum of American History offered General Motors the right to affix its name to a new 20,000-square-foot hall of transportation in exchange for the automaker's $10 million gift.
Last February the Smithsonian formed a partnership with Kmart to launch a mobile exhibit for Black History Month that included prominently displayed signs for the discount chain. In 1992 it named a new insect exhibit after the founder of the Orkin pest control company after he donated $500,000.
A majority of members of the history museum'sgoverning body signed a memo in May accusing Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small of jeopardizing the institution's integrity by striking agreements with multi-million-dollar donors.
Gen. John R. Dailey, director of the Air and Space Museum, said the institution chose McDonald's based on its reputation for fast service, low prices and brand name recognition, especially among international visitors and young people.
While visitors will certainly know that McDonald's is the facility's operator, he said, "we won't have golden arches out front." He also said there would be no McDonald's advertising in the museum proper.
A McDonald's spokeswoman, Lisa Howard, said the 1,000-seat Air and Space restaurant is likely to surpass an outlet along Interstate 95 near Darien, Conn., as the nation's busiest McDonald's. She called the agreement with the Smithsonian "a natural partnership."
McDonald's will guarantee the Smithsonian $1.6 million a year over the 10-year contract. The company, based in Oak Brook, Ill., also agreed to make a $5 million "donation." And profit sharing could generate several million dollars, according to Dailey, who estimated that the museum will make about $14 million more over the life of the contract than it would have made under its present deal with Guest Services.
The decision follows a year-long study by the museum that found many visitors, particularly school-age children, were dissatisfied by the current cafeteria, known as the Flight Line. The museum found that only 6 percent of school groups that visited the museum patronized the restaurant. "A lot of people were walking out and going to McDonald's," Dailey said.
Smithsonian representatives say the restaurant will be as up to date as some of the technologies on display in the museum. Instead of walking up to a counter, visitors will use touchscreens to place their orders, which will be processed by kitchen staff and delivered as they reach one of 12 registers.
Howard said the facility's prices will be in line with other McDonald's restaurants in the area, and would be on average about 15 percent less than prices now charged by Guest Services.