Friday, 4 October 2013

Shutdown in Washington DC

Today the streets of Washington DC are quiet. Temporary metal fences have been pulled across the entrances to museums and monuments and hastily laminated signs hang at an angle: “Because of the federal government shutdown, this facility is closed.” With all but the most essential US government staff sent home, attractions across the city (and the country) have had to close their doors to visitors.

The majority of Washington’s museums are operated by the Smithsonian Institution, a government-run organisation. On a normal day this is good news – it means the museums are free. But today it is bad news – because every last one of them is closed. Want to visit the National Museum of American History? You can’t. Want to see the Declaration of Independence? Tough. Want to pay your respects to World War II veterans? Sorry.

Today, walking along the Mall, heart of the world’s largest museum complex, is like exploring a film set. Apart from the odd lone jogger, there isn’t a person in sight. Leaves tumble along empty pavements and even the refreshment kiosks are closed.

I head instead to 9th Street and take a seat at the counter of Lincoln’s Waffle Shop. The FordTheater across the street (where Lincoln was shot) has closed its doors and disappointed tourists who haven’t yet heard the news wander up and then away again. People stop to take pictures of the signs on their mobile phones. Even the waffle house is quieter than normal; though on the upside, with the markets running scared those waffles are slightly cheaper than they were a few days ago.

But all is not lost. The solution for visitors lies just a few steps away, at the International SpyMuseum, and in the Newseum. These privately operated museums continue to open as normal and there are plenty of them to explore. Visitors can also still enjoy the exteriors of the city’s buildings – the White House, the Capitol, the Washington Memorial. The architecture of these attractions is perhaps their most impressive feature anyway – and that is one thing that cannot be shutdown. 

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