I Spent the Day Talking to Tourists Outside Museums That Are Closed for the Government Shutdown

A sign outside the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum states that the museum is closed because of a partial government shutdown in Washington.
A sign outside the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum states that the museum is closed because of a partial government shutdown in Washington.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

As the partial government shutdown stretches into its third week, the National Mall in Washington, D.C., now resembles a ghost town. The Mall is home to a host of government-funded Smithsonian museums that normally make it a bustling public space. Though some of the museums managed to stay open over the holidays with funding reserves, all 21 of the Smithsonian facilities ultimately had to close last week. Pretty much the only souls roaming the Mall as of Monday were disappointed tourists.

While the shutdown is no doubt affecting government workers and food stamp recipients far more acutely, it’s also hampering the tourism industry in D.C., which has had to find workarounds for many in-demand attractions that are now inaccessible.

Over the course of a brisk and overcast morning, I staked out the entrances of the Museum of National History and the Air and Space Museum to speak with tourists who were apparently unaware of the closures. I saw roughly two dozen people try and fail to enter the buildings.

Most of these would-be visitors followed the same routine. First, they’d ascend the stairs and come face-to-face with the white placards announcing the museums’ closures. Their bodies would deflate, and some would cuss under their breaths, while others would let out a short wail. Then, in the off chance that the sign had been placed there in error, they’d try opening the door. When that didn’t work, they’d peer through the darkened glass to check for signs of activity or, perhaps, Night at the Museum–type shenanigans. Finally, since they’d already made the trip, they’d take a picture of the shuttered building. A couple people even posed with the “We apologize for the inconvenience” sign.

In order to better understand my subjects, I tried this routine myself. I’ve got to say, it really does bruise the spirit. There’s nothing quite like having your hopes dashed upon tugging on a locked door.

The people I spoke to expressed varying levels of disappointment. Daniel told me that he had traveled from Argentina just to see the museums. When asked what he planned to do for the rest of his vacation, he responded, morosely, “Probably stay in my hotel.” He plans to come back every day before he leaves in the event that one opens. When I told him that the government would need to re-open for that to happen, he said, “I don’t know. I’ll still try.”

Bak, from Georgia, said he and his family had tried to visit the museum on Sunday. He came back thinking that the museum might just have been closed because it was the weekend. “We’re disappointed because, so far, we’ve only been able to see the Bureau of Engraving,” he said, adding that they were leaving for home later Monday.

Most of the people I spoke to didn’t have strong opinions one way or the other on the shutdown, and some didn’t even seem aware that it was going on. Asked for his thoughts on the current political impasse, Nick from Pennsylvania said, “I just want this museum to open up honestly.” Ron, visiting from New Jersey, said, “It just seems kind of silly to me … like a made-up problem.”

Angie, who came to the Air and Space Museum with a bus full of Chinese tourists, told me that they now plan to spend most of their time at the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. The Washington Post reports that tour groups have been frequenting privately owned museums like the Newseum and Madame Tussauds, while local businesses have been putting on events to try to increase foot traffic.

Outside the National History Museum, I saw a woman begin the long, involved process of transferring her two toddlers from their car seats to a stroller. As she was swaddling them for warmth, I considered approaching her to say that she’d be unable to enter, but I decided that it might be too presumptuous. In retrospect, I should have said something because the woman, Janelle, later told me that she had driven 50 minutes from Virginia just to see the museum and had already paid for two hours of parking.

“I feel so bad that I didn’t check the website,” she said. “I should have known that the government shutdown closes everything.”

She said that one of her tenants is a government employee and had asked for a rent extension, because a paycheck wouldn’t be arriving for the foreseeable future. “I can’t say no,” she said.

Janelle asked to use my phone to get directions to the International Spy Museum. When she found out that it was closed for the month, she threw up her hands and yelled, “OK, babies, let’s go home.”