As of January 17, 2019, the U.S. government has been shut down for 27 days. The impact has been profound: approximately 800,000 government workers are going without pay and will continue to until an agreement between Congress and Trump is reached. Any government employees whose jobs are considered “essential” — such as emergency responders and hospital workers — are forced to attend their jobs without compensation, while those considered “non-essential” are sent home, only to come back when the shutdown has ended. Museums and national parks fall under the latter category.
“We can’t reopen until we have a federal budget, so it all depends on a call from the White House,” said Linda St Thomas, the chief spokesperson of the Smithsonian Institution. “When we get federal funding, we will reopen immediately.”
The Smithsonian is one of the 19 museums (others include the National History Museum, the African Art Museum, and the Portrait Gallery) in Washington DC that are closed because of the shutdown, and they’re losing out on a great number of visitors: they usually see around 1 million a month. The vast history and knowledge that these museums contain is profound, and it isn’t being shared.
Beyond that, it isn’t being protected. Old photographs and documents — such as the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution — must be displayed under very specific and controlled conditions: if they’re exposed to UV or ambient light, extreme temperatures, or changes in humidity, they may deteriorate and fade. Both documents are housed in the National Archives Building, where employees were sent home nearly a month ago.
People are justifiably upset about the situation. Whitney Bell, a Los Angeles-based artist, and writer and founder of a talk series called The Stories Of Women voiced her opinion to The Guardian:
“This administration has made it clear through budget cuts and ignorant tweets that the arts and cultural education are of little value or importance,” she said. “Hundreds of thousands of jobs furloughed and millions of Americans left without access to our most important cultural institutions, historic landmarks and influential art, and for what? A xenophobic wall that flies in the face of the melting-pot ideology this country was built on.”
While not everyone may share Bell’s opinion, it’s impossible to ignore the impact the shutdown has had on the contact between the general public and our nation’s history.