A National Park Service sign on a barricade along the National Mall, close to several Smithsonian Museums. Brittany M. Hance, Smithsonian.

We Apologize for the Inconvenience: Shutting Down the Smithsonian

In 2019, the Smithsonian faced the repercussions of the nation’s longest-ever government shutdown, but the institution is no stranger to the dreaded furlough.

It’s something that comes up every year. No, we don’t mean going to the dentist, doing your taxes, or draining your hot water heater (which the internet tells me I should be doing annually—now accepting advice). We’re talking about dealing with the possibility of a government shutdown as an organization made up mostly of federal employees.

Although the museums, research centers, and the National Zoo were able to remain open for eleven days into the most recent government shutdown, relying on prior-year funds, employees were furloughed for twenty-seven days beginning January 2, 2019. It was the longest government shutdown that the Smithsonian, and the nation, endured, but it was not the first.

A group of people hold up

While the first budget stand-off occurred in 1980 under the Carter administration, it was not until 1981 that employees were furloughed for a single day on November 23. During that particular shutdown, only essential federal employees remained at work. For the Smithsonian, this meant that guards, zookeepers, and building engineers continued to work onsite, but the Smithsonian buildings and resources were closed. Employees were later paid for the lost day. 

It was only three more years until Smithsonian staff faced another shutdown under the Reagan administration, but this time for only half a day on October 4, 1984. A series of continuing resolutions were quickly passed, ending any major clashes. Although the Smithsonian received $7.3 million less than requested, the Smithsonian Budget Office claimed that the institution still “did well” for what it received that year. 

A sign hangs on a door and reads:

Flash forward a few more years, and the Smithsonian suffered through its first multi-day government shutdown, which happened to take place during Columbus Day weekend, October 6-8, 1990. According to Smithsonian’s newsletter, The Torch, “tens of thousands of disappointed visitors” found themselves stranded on the National Mall. Although staff were furloughed, with the exception of essential employees, volunteers came to the rescue, answering a record number of phone calls from confused tourists. The Smithsonian Visitor Information and Associates’ Reception Center typically received around 400 phone calls on a Saturday, but volunteers fielded 1,288 calls during the Saturday of the shutdown. 

And the Smithsonian felt the heat of the 1990 shutdown in New York City, too. Dianne Pilgrim, director of the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, explained that the furlough was “‘particularly painful’ because it cut into the other half of the museum’s budget, which comes largely from admissions and shop sales.” 

But what suffering employees endured during the 1990 furlough paled in comparison to what came in 1995 during a breaking point between the Clinton administration and Congress. It began with a six-day shutdown, which affected Smithsonian employees, between November 14 and 19. 

“In the many years I have been here,” explained Chief of Public Affairs Bob Hoage, “this shutdown seemed to be a little more worrisome because it took six days to settle.”

But that anxiety was not allayed for long when continuing conflict led to a twenty-one-day closure, made worse by a significant snowstorm that delayed the Smithsonian from reopening after the shutdown ended on January 5, 1996. The Smithsonian attempted to resist the setbacks of the furlough during the holiday season, transferring guards to trust fund employees and keeping the National Museum of American History and the National Air and Space Museum open for a brief period in December with only a skeleton staff. 

As a result of this major furlough, the Smithsonian established the Smithsonian Employee Emergency Assistance Fund to provide loans to staff for basic needs during the instance of a government shutdown.

Upon his return in January 1996, National Portrait Gallery management specialist assistant Kevin Greene opined, “I wanted to do something other than sit at home, complain and watch the news, which was quite depressing.” 1996 or 2019?

A small gate with a sign about the government shutdown stands on the National Mall. The Smithsonian

Twenty-first-century government shutdowns have been no less brutal for employees. On October 1, 2013, the Smithsonian closed its doors to the public, beginning a sixteen-day furlough. Exhibits were delayed. The arrivals of new objects were stalled. An employee was included in a Washington Post article, titled “Spouses of the furloughed, to Congress: Take them back --please.” But jokes aside, employees and contractors faced the financial and emotional consequences of another long government shutdown, and were forbidden from accessing their computers or emails for the very first time. 

Tensions soared during the most recent and longest government shutdown in 2019. Biological anthropologist Sabrina Sholts really represented the hardship of the shutdown to the Washington Post following her return to the Smithsonian. “It came down on me how unfair it was for those of us who just want to do our jobs, who love our jobs.” Sholts continued, “I am very relieved to be back...but even that’s kind of weird. You shouldn’t feel relieved to go to your job.”

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