National Mall Versus the Wall

UPDATE: National Mall museums reopened on January 29th.  The Government shut-down is over — at least for three weeks — while Trump and Congress hammer out an agreement.

By Gordon Binder

I recently had the chance to see the Gordon Parks exhibit at the National Gallery of Art.  It’s an understatement to say how stirring his work is, to view up close the images he recorded, the history he captured, along with the artistic bent of this extraordinary photographer.  But now no one can see it.  The National Gallery of Art is closed.

Consider for the sake of argument:  Washington, DC, the nation’s capital, your family plans a special visit to mark an occasion or your school a tour to take in the sights, the history, the impressive displays and programs offered by world famous museums.  You may even have succeeded in reserving those hard-to-come-by timed-tickets to get into the National Museum of African American History and Culture, one of the most popular DC attractions.

You arrive only to find the museums, the monuments, and much of official Washington closed.  It’s the border wall dispute, you know.

The federal government is in partial shutdown mode, thanks to a battle of political wills over funding for a border wall, concrete or steel or otherwise, demanded by Donald Trump as a quid pro quo for re-opening the government.

Some agencies did receive appropriations and are functioning.  But not the Smithsonian Institution, which operates those world-class museums, nor the National Gallery of Art.  Out of funds, both institutions closed their doors soon after New Year’s.  They won’t reopen until there’s money for the balance of the fiscal year, or for however long a continuing resolution passes Congress.  Garbage is piling up on the Mall, relieved only because the District government has stepped in to collect the trash.  Other consequences are mounting daily.

What are we to make of this shutdown of the nation’s premiere museums and monuments?

Most Americans understand border security is critical. The questions come, of course, as to whether a wall of whatever material comports with the needs identified by security experts based on the terrain, land ownership, the presence of water or wildlife refuges, and other factors.  In some places, alternative approaches make more sense:  more staff, drones and motion detectors and other technologies, beefed up immigration courts and child care, and so on.  If a wall is the best approach for a given stretch of the border, so be it.  But evidence and experience need to drive decisions as to what’s needed where.

Of course, many Americans are affected by the shutdown, furloughed federal employees and those deemed essential who may not get a paycheck.  Farmers, Native Americans, would be home-buyers, and others who depend on some form of federal assistance are experiencing growing anxiety over their precarious financial situation.

Meanwhile, those of us who live Washington or who visited or planned to visit have to grin and bear it, postponing whatever enjoyment or education or inspiration we anticipated from visiting these great institutions while hoping for speedy resolution of the standoff.

Stay tuned.  It could be a long haul.

• Gordon Binder is a Senior Fellow at World Wildlife Fund.


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