Mount Pleasant residents are accustomed to the roars of lions and cries of gibbons emanating from the National Zoo. And while they’ll still be able to hear the animals Wednesday, they won’t be able to see them in person for the foreseeable future.
When the government shutdown was announced the week before Christmas, every Washingtonian expecting visitors experienced a moment of terror: “Ohmigod, are they going to close the Smithsonian?” Relax, we were told: The Smithsonian found enough unused “prior-year funds” to stay open through the holidays, while the National Gallery of Art pieced together “unexpired two-year and no-year appropriations” to do the same.
Except that funding has finally run out.
Tourists hoping to see the Star-Spangled Banner, the Hope Diamond and Harriet Tubman’s shawl will find locked doors at all 17 of the District’s Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo Wednesday. The National Gallery — both the East and West buildings as well as the popular skating rink in the sculpture gardens — will follow suit Thursday.
They’ll join the museums and National Park Service-run sites across the region — the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, the DEA Museum — that have been shuttered since Dec. 22 due to a lack of government funding.
What makes this especially confusing for visitors is that while Washington is full of government-funded cultural attractions, it’s not always clear how a shutdown impacts their individual operations. The National Archives closed when the shutdown began on Dec. 22, for instance. But the Library of Congress and the U.S. Botanic Garden — and the Capitol Visitor Center and Capitol Building, ironically — are operating as normal, since they were funded by the 2019 Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill. The Kennedy Center and Ford’s Theatre operate in a gray area: Neither uses federal funds for performances, so those will go on as scheduled, but the Kennedy Center’s hours are slashed, because the government pays for essential services, such as cleaning and security, and the National Park Service-run museum at Ford’s Theatre is closed.
And to further add to the confusion: Smithsonian-sponsored events scheduled to take place at non-museum sites — such as a free listening party for the new Smithsonian Folkways album “The Social Power of Music” at Songbyrd Music House in Adams Morgan on Wednesday — will go on as planned.
With Washington’s star attractions closed, the nonfederal museums are vying for attention from frustrated tourists and furloughed locals. The Phillips Collection, the National Building Museum, President Lincoln’s Cottage and the Woodrow Wilson House are all offering free admission to federal workers with government IDs. (This is an effective marketing technique: The Phillips Collection says its daily visitors more than doubled during the extended shutdown in 2013.) The Newseum, the National Geographic Museum and the Museum of the Bible are open as usual.
Bars and restaurants are doing their part to entertain and feed furloughed workers. José Andrés’s ThinkFoodGroup restaurants offer different free sandwiches every day between 2 and 5 p.m., including chicken shawarma at Zaytinya and pulled pork at America Eats Tavern, for anyone with a government ID. Also available to those carrying around their work badge: Capitol Lounge has a menu of $5 cocktails with such names as “Nothing Really Mattis”; Satellite Room is offering $2 slices of pizza; and City Tap House extended happy hour until 10 p.m. nightly.
Tourists are locked out of the Smithsonian, but renovation of galleries in the National Air and Space Museum, including the World War I and World War II exhibits, will continue behind closed doors, says Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas.
Art lovers should hope this shutdown is mercifully brief — especially those who haven’t yet gotten around to seeing the National Gallery of Art’s landmark Rachel Whiteread exhibition, which closes Jan. 13, or the American Art Museum’s “Diane Arbus: A Box of Ten Photographs,” which ends Jan. 21. Is there any chance that, if the shutdown stretches even longer, those exhibitions might be extended? “That has yet to be determined,” says NGA publicist Isabella Bulkeley.