US Government Shutdown and its Effect on the Smithsonian Museums and Collections

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Sign outside of the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC, during a prolonged government shutdown (32787154878_b015e86674_k). Photograph by Craig James, taken on 7 January 2019. Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0).

As illustrated by this sign outside the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. (USA), the 35-day government shutdown took a far-reaching toll on not only government employees and contractors but on national and foreign visitors as well.

The partial US government shutdown went into effect December 22, 2018 and, due to the White House and Congress stand-off over border security and related budgets, remained so until January 25, 2019. Most federal workers returned to work the following Monday, but this reopening is temporary (only 3 weeks) if the two quarreling branches of government cannot reach an agreement within this time.

According to reports made by NBC News in Washington, the partial shutdown affected 800,000 federal employees. 420,000 of these workers, deemed essential, were required to continue to work but without pay (including law enforcement, corrections, Homeland Security, TSA, Customs and Border Protection agents, and the Coast Guard). The remaining 380,000 federal employees affected were put on furlough; this meant no work and no pay during the entirety of the shutdown.

The shutdown included all 19 Smithsonian Museums and the National Zoo (this also affected Smithsonian collections located outside of the District, such as the Cooper Hewitt and NMAI in New York City), meaning much of the museum staff and contractors—including conservation personnel—were unable to work, and these priceless public collections were closed to the visiting public. Linda St Thomas, chief spokesperson for the Smithsonian Institute, estimated that this deprived the Smithsonian of over 1 million visitors. In turn those would-be visitors were denied access to current blockbuster exhibits, such the Oprah Winfrey retrospective at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and to unique facilities such as the Lunder Conservation Center which allows the visiting public to view the Museums’ conservators as they care for the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery.

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