Smithsonian Staffers Scramble to Make Up Time Lost During Government Shutdown

Workers are back, the museums are open, the pandas are well, but officials say the ramifications of the shutdown are far from over

The Panda Cams had to be turned off during the shutdown and so for the past month, the crown jewel of the National Zoo has been hidden from the public. Jane Recker

On January 2, the Smithsonian Institution kicked off the new year by shutting down. As the Institution’s 19 museums reopen today in Washington, D.C. and New York City, staffers return after being furloughed for close to a month, and officials are still trying to ascertain the extent of the damage the government shutdown created. This much is certain: exhibitions will be delayed, research has been impacted and the organization is going to feel the impact of the longest shutdown in history for months to come.

"Every day of closure," the Smithsonian's secretary David Skorton wrote, "prevents approximately 45,000 visitors from viewing our treasures and engaging our experts." Some of those visitors would have been looking to celebrate their past: The National Museum of African American History and Culture was closed during Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the National Museum of the American Indian was closed during the Indigenous People’s March on January 18.

Some visitors would have been coming to see special exhibitions in their final weeks. Four art shows quietly closed last week during the shutdown’s final days, among them, the highly acclaimed “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery. Contractors, working with only a few excepted museum employees, began the deinstallation on January 21.

Artworks from the collections of the National Museum of African Art were scheduled to go on view in a new exhibition, “Caravans of Gold, Fragments of Time,” opening at Northwestern University’s Block Museum. To pack up the pieces for transport, the Block Museum had to pay contractors to do the work. To coordinate those efforts and to ensure the pieces arrived on time, spokesperson Eddie Burke says a skeleton crew of three to four unpaid, excepted employees worked nonstop—sometimes up to 14 hours a day—fielding calls and arranging details.

Research has been impacted as well. Ryan Lavery, a spokesperson at the National Museum of Natural History, says the museum was not only closed to its own research staff, but to “untold numbers” of researchers from across the globe who rely on the collections and collaborate with its scientists. Federal researchers were prohibited from carrying out any research or attending scientific conferences and meetings; research trips to Mexico, Kenya and the Caribbean were canceled as a result.

Brandie Smith, associate director of animal care sciences at the National Zoo, says a few, time-sensitive research projects continued, but that the majority of research was halted or impacted by the shutdown. A canceled elephant rehabilitation project in Myanmar is postponed for a year, after researchers missed the cold, dry season that would allow for safe passage on roads.

Bei Bei
The 3-year-old Bei Bei was cared for throughout the shutdown by Zoo staffers, who went unpaid until the government reopened. Jane Recker

Even those who were allowed to continue their research might have skewed data thanks to the shutdown, Smith says. She noted one study in particular being conducted at the Zoo on elephant behavior as being impacted, because the elephants acted differently when they didn’t have throngs of visitors to “interact with and show off for.”

“We missed our visitors. . . but we noticed the animals also missed our visitors,” Smith says. “Animals like the elephants, our great apes, definitely we could tell that when staff was in the house, [the animals] showed much more interest because they were just looking for people.”

Even though the museums have reopened to visitors and researchers are back on the ground, there is still more adversity to come. Workers are scrambling to make up for the lost month and are making tough decisions about whether upcoming exhibitions will open on time. Currently, the Smithsonian Gardens' orchid exhibition, the African Art Museum’s “Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths,” and American Indian Museum’s “Section 14: The Other Palm Springs” are delayed indefinitely; “T.C. Cannon: At the Edge of America” at the American Indian Museum’s Gustav Heye Center in New York City might be delayed, as well.

Burke says that the African Art Museum is doing everything it can to open “Striking Iron” as soon as possible.

“You might ask, ‘Why can’t you just open [the exhibition] a month later?’” he says. “But [think about] those contractors that would be handling all the various works, all of that changes because [contractors] start working on other projects. We’re looking at this in the totality of the year.”

January might not seem like a busy time for the Smithsonian Gardens, but director Barbara Faust says losing productivity throughout the month meant losing critical time to prepare the Smithsonian’s 12 gardens for the spring and fall. Workers lost time to plant seeds, order plants and keep up with pruning; Faust says that lost work could impact the gardens for up to half a year.

Faust adds that the Gardens’ annual orchid exhibit will likely be delayed for three weeks, adding that the length of the show is dependent on the time of year when the orchids naturally bloom, so the Gardens will be unable to extend the showing to make up for the lost time. Faust expressed her disappointment about the impact. “People go gaga for orchids, they’re like the panda of the gardening world,” she says.

Bei Bei in the Snow

The giant pandas at the National Zoo are happy and healthy, as keepers were excepted from the shutdown, feeding and caring for the animals even as they conducted their work without pay. The Panda Cams had to be turned off and so for the past month, the crown jewel of the Zoo has been hidden from the public. Smith noted the international online love for the pandas, and says the Zoo would share footage of the pandas rolling in this year’s snow.

“I worry sometimes about ‘out of sight, out of mind,’” she says. “Hard to believe that anybody could forget about a giant panda, but watching our giant pandas is a habit for a lot of people. . . and ultimately our job is to connect people with wildlife and nature. If we cut any of those connections, then we’ve lost.”

Editor's Note: 1/31/2019: A previous version of this article miscalculated the number of visitors that would have visited the Smithsonian during the shutdown.

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.