Responses to Government Shutdown Vary at Historic Sites and Museums

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Washington, DC is one of the nation’s museum meccas with nearly 19 million annual visitors so with the partial shutdown of the federal government, tourists are frustrated and confused.  Closed are the most popular destinations such as the Smithsonian Institution, National Gallery of Art, Lincoln Memorial, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, National Archives, and Capitol Visitor Center (tours of the White House ended in March 2013 due to sequestration).  Although it is a federal city, many of its museums and historic sites are privately operated so places such as the Phillips Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, President Lincoln’s Cottage, Tudor Place, Woodrow Wilson House, and International Spy Museum, are open as usual.  “National” may be in its name, it doesn’t mean it’s affected by the shutdown, so the National Building Museum, National Geographic Museum, National Museum of Women in the Arts, National Museum of Health and Medicine, and National Museum of American Jewish Military History are open (as is the National Aquarium in Baltimore).  Adding to the confusion are parts of the federal government that remain open (hence its more precise definition as a “partial shutdown”), so historic sites such as the US Supreme Court and Arlington National Cemetery (but not Arlington House), continue to be open to tourists.

Washington DC is definitely a confusing places for tourists at the moment, but it’s also confusing at the 300+ “units” of the National Park Service scattered around the country.  When Congress failed to adopt a budget by October 1, all NPS sites closed but since then a dozen have temporarily reopened with outside funds (mostly in Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and South Dakota which rely heavily on tourism during the Columbus Day weekend).  It’s especially complicated at places such as Jamestowne, which is jointly owned and operated by the National Park Service and Preservation Virginia.  It closed on October 1 with other national parks but reopened on October 12 due to the persistence of its partner. Preservation Virginia’s executive director Elizabeth Kostelny said that,

“Earlier this week, we attempted to reopen our 22.5 acres of private property that has been owned by the Association since 1893. We believed we could open because of the right of access provided in our 1956 agreement with the Department of Interior and because of the precedent of reopening in the previous shutdown in 1996/97. Initially our view was not shared by the leadership of the NPS and the gates to Historic Jamestowne remained locked on Wednesday. Preservation Virginia continued to pursue all avenues open to us and we are pleased with the wisdom of this re-evaluation.”

Adding to the confusion is that NPS portion of the island will be closed, no NPS passes will be honored, and busses can’t be accommodated on site due to limited parking.  To ease some of the pain for visitors, Preservation Virginia has reduced the admission fee to $5.  The nearby and separately operated Jamestown Settlement is open, however, access is affected by the closure of portions of the Colonial Parkway that connects it to Yorktown and Colonial Williamsburg.

Museums and historic sites are responding in various ways.  Places that are closed have put signs up at their entrances or added a notice at the top of their web pages that the museum is closed and the websites won’t be maintained.  The National Park Service has taken an extreme tactic of closing down the entire website, so even static information such as the documents, reports, standards, and National Register listings are unavailable.  Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service stated that, “Without question, we all want to see the entire national parks and public lands system re-open to the public; we know the closures are having unfortunate impacts on countless families, businesses, and communities. Turning visitors away is simply not in our DNA.”  Hmm.  “Turning visitors away” from the entrance to an historic site for safety and security is one thing, turning off your website is another (by the way, the Smithsonian, NEH, NEA, and IMLS websites are all available although not maintained).

Sites that are open are finding a silver lining on this dark cloud as visitors shuffle the “destination deck” and find new places to visit.   Some are attracting new audiences or strengthening relationships by offering free or discounted admission to federal employees, who are not receiving paychecks during the shutdown.  To clarify access, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello clearly announces that is is open during the shutdown on its website and George Washington’s Mount Vernon is running special Google ads.  The Smithsonian can’t process acquisitions, donations, or loans during this time, so exhibits are either being put on hold or going elsewhere.  For example, 140 butterflies from the Lewis Gintner Botanical Gardens that were slated for the Smithsonian are now headed to the butterfly garden at the Science Museum of Western Virginia.  Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina is closed, so visitors are heading to a Civil War photo exhibit at the nearby Gibbes Museum of Art.  Their daily attendance has trebled during the shutdown and on Sunday’s free admission day, 900 people visited.

No matter if your historic site or museum has closed down or stayed open during the shutdown, it should prompt you to question if your organization matters.  If you closed, would anyone care? Would your community rally to re-open it?  Or would you simply be a casualty of the economy? What could you do now to build support for the future?

The following news stories provide various perspectives on the impact of the shutdown on museums:

If the government shutdown is affecting your historic site or museum, please share it in the comments below.

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