The Government Shutdown’s Effect on Culture Is Worth Caring About

A red banner tops the Smithsonian website. It’s a simple two-sentence statement. The first sentence reads, “Due to the federal government shutdown, all Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo are closed.”

It’ll be difficult to rally for art as long as the shutdown persists. Indeed, it may be the last thing on anyone’s mind as we struggle to understand just what it means exactly that our government is shuttered. Last week, the New York Times reported that when it came to museums, “…federally financed institutions are hurrying to come up with contingency plans that they compare to those for a hurricane or a blizzard.” This morning when I read the headlines, I imagined a store boarded up after a storm, and, in this case, that may not be too far off.

Privately financed institutions will be just fine. The federally funded institutions, however — places like the array of Smithsonian Museums and the National Archives — are closed. In the latter’s case, someone with either an urge to be as service-y as possible or a good sense of humor at the Archives’ Our Presidents Tumblr hashtagged the announcement of its closure with “#government #shutdown #government shutdown #National Archives.” Thinking that our #government is #shutdown does put a different spin on it, doesn’t it?

The implication is physical. The museums that line the National Mall are all closed. The buzz of tourists, anxious to look up at a seated Lincoln, is silenced. The Washington City Paper writes of a quieted Mall: “That could mean thousand of workers staying home — and potentially tens of thousands of tourists, visitors, and locals shut out of America’s cultural treasury.”

We forget that culture is not only constructed through tradition but through artifact. We save these things, yellowed parchment scribbled over and the skeletons of species we never got the chance to meet, because they remind us of what once was, of who we have been and consequently, who we are and who we can be. These museums and monuments are not only diversions, activities for slow weekends, but the repositories of fact. Their closure is an economic (lest we forgot how important tourism is) and symbolic blow.

Of course, it is not only the 19 institutions run by the Smithsonian (places like the Hirshhorn Museum and the National Zoo) that are being affected. Federal money funds locations coast to coast, and not just galleries with paintings. Anything run by the National Park Service is also closed. Don’t even try going to the National Park Service website; a message greets you with, “Because of the federal government shutdown, all national parks are closed and National Park Service webpages are not operating” before the site automatically redirects you to the Department of Interior.

The Service’s Facebook page has another message: “Because of the federal government shutdown this National Park Service Facebook page is inactive. We’ll start the conversation again when we get back.” That was posted this morning, and already there are hundreds of comments. Many say “sorry”; these messages read like condolences to the family of a dead friend.

There is another useful post on that Facebook page, a fact you should be aware of:  “…all 401 national parks and National Park Service facilities will be closed.” A link they provide directs you to the Department of the Interior site again, where an array of “contingency plans” for the different agencies are listed. The NPS Contingency Plan FAQ makes sure to mention the bigger sites closed by name. They include: Yellowstone National Park, Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and the Statue of Liberty. Essential staff like park police and firefighters will still be present. There will always be money for surveillance.

The Park Service’s motto, “Experience Your America,” is today just a tease. The valleys of Zion, the grassy hills and knolls of the Gettysburg Battlefield, and even the tallest trees on Earth at Redwood aren’t accessible. So many great things about America won’t belong to this nation’s people as long as our federal government remains suspended, and even amid all the more urgent fallout of the shutdown, that’s worth lamenting.