Shutdown After Action Report

I had a post almost ready to put up early in October about that opinion piece by the travel writer who said he hated museums, remember that? Seems a long time ago, now.  Then the shutdown hit and blew all my plans out of the water, not in the way experienced by my federally funded colleagues, but still we’ve had our challenges. So, I thought I would give you an After Action Report from Washington, the seat of battle, not just in Congress (was that a battle we witnessed or a tantrum?) but as a representative of a museum open when basically every major tourist attraction in the city was closed.

Creating the Ideal Home: 1800-1939 explores technological advances meant to ease the housewife's burden.
Creating the Ideal Home: 1800-1939 explores technological advances meant to ease the housewife’s burden. Photo courtesy of the author.

As word of a potential shutdown started to circulate, staff was going about business as usual mounting an exhibition slated to open October 4. On the morning of October 1, with the shutdown about 10 hours old, I got a call asking if it was possible to open the exhibition early. The DAR board and administration, conscious of the museum’s location adjacent to the Elipse and a block from the National Mall, and aware that the shutdown meant that all of the 18 Smithsonian museums located in the DC area were closed saw an opportunity. Visitors whose plan had been the typical nation’s capital itinerary of monuments and [Smithsonian] museums were out of luck. Not to mention the tour companies that bring scores of buses filled with tourists to the city from near and far, whose bottom line depended on keeping those buses full and the folks in the seats happy.

Thanks to some providential planning, we were able to open the exhibit two days ahead of schedule which enabled us to put the word out that not only could people visit our 31 period rooms but we had a new exhibit open. And the people came. At the same time the phone started ringing off the hook. Tour company representatives were scrambling to find other museums that had free admission (they were trying to maintain their profit margin). While the museum professional in me regretted that the best we could do for groups was to offer a self-guided tour (finding docents for all of them on such short notice wasn’t possible) the manager side was glad to see people coming in the door. It was an opportunity to show them what we had to offer and to plant the seed for a return trip under better circumstances. Fortunately, the bus-people understood we all were trying to make the best of a difficult situation.

As for the tour operators. I have some reservations there. The time they brought 144 fifth graders and chaparones dumping  them in the rain two blocks from the museum, to find their own way when they had assured us that the group would arrive in more manageable groups of 45 each, was not good. The last experience I had with a company consisted of a call to see where the group was after no one  showed up for a prearranged tour. But I guess I should have just intuited that since the shut down ended the previous evening and the other sites in town were open again they weren’t coming (they didn’t call back).

All in all, the shutdown was an opportunity for us. We were able to show visitors that there are other things to see in the nation’s capital aside from the typical monuments and museums.  When a tour company owner, visibly impressed by the museum, said to me, “Wow! This is wonderful, how long has this museum been around?” I couldn’t resist telling her, fighting to keep the sarcasm from my voice, “Oh, 123 years.”