A Post article published after the first day of the government shutdown unfurled a sob story about tourists with unfortunate timing: “On the Mall, which was largely barren of tourists, here and there a parent staggered along, pulling a tired child and squinting against the sun like a lost survivor, hoping for the salvation of something to see. But the attractions were locked.” And a tour bus operator added to this doomsday scenario: “ ‘Tour operators in other cities can take visitors to alternative sights that aren’t closed,’ he pointed out. ‘But with Washington, D.C., all our eggs are in one basket.’ [John] Holbrook said. ‘And all those eggs are cracked.’ ”
All of them? Well, no. After some thinking and a little bit of research, I was able to generate a list of 43 non-federal, uncracked tourist “eggs” within the city limits. My list includes only museums and historic buildings with visitor services. When I add embassies and libraries that often offer exhibits and public programs, the number grows significantly. If I include attractions within 10 miles of the city, the numbers begin to weigh even more heavily toward the non-federal attractions. Then there are the theaters and concert venues.
Don’t tell me there is nothing to do in this city during a shutdown.
I have lived in the D.C. area for almost six years, and in that time, I have visited many of these non-federal attractions. When I first arrived, I was reluctant to visit the museums with admission fees. Why pay when so many things are available for free, especially given that I was first a poor graduate student and then an underemployed ticket-seller? It was only after my non-federal-museum employer started charging admission that I realized how important these fees were to smaller private museums. I no longer work at that museum, but being on the front lines, explaining such an unpleasant change to visitors, made me aware of my own selfishness.
Out of an increased awareness, and perhaps a twinge of vengeance for every visitor who complained to me about having to pay, I became determined to visit some of these museums with entrance fees. And guess what? I much preferred those experiences over battling crowds at the attractions on the Mall. I felt comfortable moving at my own pace, stopping to fully absorb a piece of art, study an artifact or engage with an interactive display without the anxiety of having many people behind me waiting to take my place. And there are almost always staff or volunteers who can answer questions or, lo and behold, even offer information without being asked. In my 15 or so visits to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, finding someone to answer my questions about the museum could be more time-consuming than digging for dinosaur bones.
Don’t get me wrong: I love what the federally funded attractions offer. I frequently attend films at the Freer Gallery and lectures at the National Archives, and despite my background in the sciences, my favorite Smithsonian museum is the American Art Museum and Portrait Gallery because of their interdisciplinary exhibits and programs, which provide context to the art.
But the Smithsonian Institution, the Mall and the federally funded sites are not the be-all and end-all of the D.C. tourist scene. Go see the National Geographic Museum, the Newseum, the National Building Museum, the Koshland Science Museum, the Textile Museum, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Corcoran, the Phillips Collection, the National Cathedral, the Franciscan Monastery, the German-American Heritage Museum, or Hillwood Estate, Museum and Garden. Then venture farther out to the College Park Aviation Museum, Brookside Gardens, Mount Vernon or the museums of Alexandria.
The best of the rest may not be as large or conveniently located, but they are just as engaging, just as relevant and frequently offer a more personal experience. Many will cost you, some more than others, but that money is part of what allows them to stay open when all the federally funded attractions close.
A shutdown will ruin your vacation only if you let it. This is the perfect opportunity to better get to know your nation’s capital, a city that I only grew to love after realizing that its true character doesn’t huddle around the Mall, like executives in a board room, but can be found quietly plodding away in a business district or cozily residing on a side street.