You can’t see the Wright Flyer at the National Air and Space Museum, or snap a selfie with Henry, the African bush elephant at the Natural History Museum, or even peek at the pandas at the National Zoo.
On Wednesday, the partial government shutdown hit many of Washington’s cultural attractions when the Smithsonian museums — and the zoo and its popular Panda Cam — closed to the public.
The National Gallery of Art — which, like the Smithsonian museums, stayed open during the busy holiday week — will close Thursday if an agreement hasn’t been reached. The museums, which are partially federally funded, used reserve money to keep operating when the shutdown began Dec. 22. The holiday season is typically one of the busiest times of the year for Smithsonian museums. (Officials reported 1.1 million visitors between Dec. 22 and Jan. 1.)
But the closure doesn’t mean the entire Smithsonian Institution has gone dark. About 2,000 of the Smithsonian’s 6,000 employees are not paid by the federal government, so those staffers — including museum directors, senior-level administrators, fundraisers and employees of its magazine, television channel and Folkways music label — haven’t been furloughed and are working as usual.
Construction is underway at the Air and Space Museum, which this month begins a long-planned seven-year renovation. And at the National Museum of Natural History, exhibits are still being installed in the popular Fossil Hall, which is set to reopen June 8 after a five-year renovation.
“The contract has been signed and we’re able to move forward, using nonfederal dollars, to allow the exhibit installation to move forward,” said Jim Wood, communications director at the Natural History Museum.
But, Wood said, things could get difficult if the shutdown goes on for an extended period.
“Where it gets a little tricky,” he said, “is . . . when you have other components, like curatorial review of wall text,” as most curators are furloughed federal employees. “In the short term, we’re okay.”
Some Smithsonian workers, including minimal security and maintenance personnel, are exempt from the shutdown because their jobs are considered essential, said Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas. The largest number of exempt employees are at the National Zoo, taking care of the animals.
Animal care remains a priority, but the widely watched Panda Cam and other zoo cameras are no longer broadcasting.
Employees at the National Museum of American History reported to work Wednesday for a four-hour “orderly shutdown,” after which they set out-of-office replies on their phones and email and then left, some taking office plants with them. Furloughed staff are not allowed to work, even on a volunteer basis, so progress on upcoming exhibitions will be stalled, a museum spokeswoman said. During the shutdown, social media accounts will be dark and no new content will be shared.
If the shutdown doesn’t end quickly, exhibitions at the National Gallery of Art that are scheduled to come down will require registrars and other staff to uninstall the items, said gallery spokeswoman Anabeth Guthrie, who added that it’s too early to tell whether any exhibitions will be delayed.
Many projects that are not in public view also have been affected by the shutdown. Four students from Los Angeles are expected to begin internships Monday with the Smithsonian Latino Center and its museum partners, who are federal workers.
“We’ve found people who are willing to help us, but it means the students won’t have the internships we had thought,” said Eduardo Diaz, the center’s director, adding that his office also will provide space for workers who can’t access their museum offices.
“We are improvising and picking up the slack where we can,” he said. “We’ve been through this before, so we know how to manage, not only the work itself, but the mental aspect as well.”
Meanwhile, several thousand museum workers are in limbo.
“We’re hopeful that this gets resolved as soon as possible,” Wood said, “so we can get back to serving the American people through science and access to our exhibits and programs.”