Facing Budget Cuts, Smithsonian Cuts Exhibitions and Closes Galleries

The Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall  (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)
The Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

Earlier this week, officials with the Smithsonian Institution, as well as the National Archives and Records Administration, gave testimony at the Congressional Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on the impact of federal budget cuts from sequestration. The cuts will force the Smithsonian Institution to not just cancel or put on hold some upcoming exhibitions, but, starting May 1, to temporarily close off galleries throughout the year as well.

Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough said this in his testimony:

With fewer curators, researchers, and support available for our exhibitions and programs, we will  be unable to sustain our recent level of exhibitions and visitor programs. We anticipate being forced to postpone or cancel exhibitions for 2014 and 2015. For example, an initiative exploring the origins of democracy at the National Museum of American History is one that may be postponed because we expect a shortfall of funds.

In a release on the Smithsonian’s website, the previously instituted 5% reduction to its federal budget (which is about $41 million between March and September of 2013) was outlined, which mandated a hiring freeze, cutting the travel and training of staff, and limiting the amount of money going to maintenance, contractors, research, education, and outreach. However, this isn’t enough now that the “full impact of sequestration is clear,” and the cuts beginning May 1 also include reducing research and the slowing of the digitizing of their collections. The limiting of gallery access is a way to reduce the number of contracted security guards, and as Clough pointed out to the committee, reserving funding to continue their conservation and preservation of some of the country’s artistic and cultural treasures is essential. He said:

We are the guardians of Morse’s telegraph; Edison’s light bulb; the Salk vaccine; the 1865 telescope designed by Maria Mitchell, America’s first woman astronomer who discovered a comet; the Wright Flyer; Amelia Earhart’s plane; Louis Armstrong’s trumpet; the jacket of labor leader Cesar Chavez; the Lansdowne portrait of George Washington; the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to Japanese American World War II veterans; the Spirit of Tuskegee airplane, used to train Tuskegee Airmen during World War II; the Hopi ceramic pot carried into space by Chickasaw astronaut John Herrington, the first Native American to orbit the Earth; the camera John Glenn purchased at a drug store and used on his historic voyage into space; Asian, African and American art; the Apollo 11 Command Module, Columbia; and the space shuttle Discovery.

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

The new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which was mandated by Congress, could also be to impacted in its opening, which was scheduled for November 2015. However, the most popular exhibitions will likely not be influenced, like the mobbed Hope Diamond or the extraterrestrial travel-worn space capsules, but it with the potential for less trafficked galleries to have these closures reduces the chance for discovery in new art and ideas that has been so facilitated by the Smithsonian’s sprawling, and free, museums of art, science, and history.

As Clough concluded with his testimony:

Day-to-day operations at the Smithsonian have not changed dramatically yet. And it is my hope that our spring visitors will not notice the impact of the sequestration. But when we implement rolling museum gallery closures, the visiting public will be increasingly affected over time. The reductions we have made are short-term measures that will produce savings this fiscal year, some of which will have long term impact such as reductions in facilities maintenance and repair. Continuation of the reductionsinto future years will require more significant—and potentially damaging—reductions and the long-term impact on the public will be broad-based given the nature of the cuts.

The Smithsonian did not respond to Hyperallergic’s requests for comment at time of publication.

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