By Erick Johnson
The popular National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) closed Wednesday January 2, the latest attraction to close due to the partial government shutdown. Hundreds of employees at the museum have been furloughed as a result of the closure.
The closure threatens the travel plans of thousands of Black students and families who are wrapping up their holiday breaks to explore their history on Constitution Avenue.
The NMAAHC is among the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, galleries and National Zoo that have closed as the government shutdown heads into its eleventh day.
All of the Smithsonian museums will be closed indefinitely as Congress and President Donald Trump continue to clash over a budget that includes Trump’s plans to raise $5 billion for a wall along the Mexican border. With billions to go and partisan politics, lawmakers are far from ending the stalemate anytime soon.
Lonnie Burch, founding director of the NMAAHC, in a statement said the museum passed its fundraising goal last year, raising $402,000.
“We are so encouraged by your support, which will help make 2019 an amazing year for the Museum. Especially during the federal government shutdown, your support is more significant than ever. Though the Museum is temporarily closed, our collection goes beyond the walls of the building in our digital collection found on our website, and our mission to elevate the African American experience to its rightful place in history remains critically important.”
The U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Interior, Commerce and Justice have been shuttered since the partial shutdown began December 22. Other federal agencies and attractions have kept their doors open with the help of state funding and surplus budgets. One of those attractions is the NMAAHC, which had a surplus budget that carried over from the prior year, said Linda St. Thomas, chief spokesman for the Smithsonian Museum Institution, which oversees the NMAAHC and its other attractions.
With no federal budget, all of the government employees at the Smithsonian’s attractions will be furloughed. That means about 200 employees at NMAAHC won’t be working until a federal budget has been hammered out.
“We are legally not allowed to stay open while there’s no budget,” St. Thomas said.
The museum’s popular Sweet Home Café will close as well, though the facility is run by an outside company with non-government employees, St. Thomas said.
St. Thomas was unable to provide NMAAHC’s specific annual operating budget because it shares a $51 million budget with the rest of Smithsonian’s attractions.
The NMAAHC is the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, history, and culture. Established by a federal law in 2003, the opening on September 24, 2016 followed decades of efforts to promote and highlight the contributions of African Americans. The 400,000 square foot NMAAHC has attracted nearly a million people who have viewed thousands of artifacts spanning five floors. The museum is the hottest museum in Washington, where busloads of Black churches and family reunions make the NMAAHC a priority destination. To control record crowds, the free museum continues to use timed passes to regulate the flow of visitors.
It will be a rare scene for locals to see a closed NMAAHC and an empty and quiet front entrance.
But there may be some hope for the museum officials.
Democrats recently have come up with a strategy to reopen the government when they take control of the House on Thursday, January 3. Democrats reportedly plan to pass a stopgap spending bill to fund the Homeland Security Department through February 8. The bill would extend the existing $1.3 billion spending level on border fencing and other security measures, far short of the $5 billion Trump has sought to build new walls along the U.S.-Mexico border.
But the temporary legislation is not aimed to bring an end to the partial shutdown that has dragged on for nearly two weeks. If Trump holds firm on his demand for a $5 billion border wall, he will prolong a budget stalemate that could keep the NMAAHC and other attractions closed for an indefinite period of time.
The Republican majority Congress has so far held back on Trump’s demands and with Democrats taking over, the division and bickering may grow even bigger.