For 16 days, culture nearly died in our nation’s capitol. As the shutdown began, most news stories focused on how absurd it was that our government had crumbled under pressure from ultra-right wing conservatives. Yes, the Tea Party had successfully taken control of Republicans, shut down our government, and put thousands of federal employees out of work. But there was something else they tried to accomplish as well—they shut down our cultural heritage.
I work at the Library of Congress, one of the lesser-known historic federal institutions in Washington, D.C. In fact, it is the oldest federal cultural institution, out-dating the Smithsonian. In addition to the original personal library of Thomas Jefferson and the Gutenberg Bible, the Library’s collection houses prints, photographs, manuscripts, books, and maps—with a focus on items emblematic of our American culture.
When the shutdown began, the Library of Congress, the National Gallery, and all Smithsonian Museums were closed. Despite the throngs of inconvenienced tourists unable to see the exhibitions, the institutions themselves ceased to operate. No rare books were preserved, no artifacts were archived, no photographs digitized, no collections curated. All research at the Library of Congress came to a halt.
A library is more than just a collection of books and artifacts; it represents a collective cultural identity. Shutting down access to a cultural heritage institution barred people from experiencing their own personal history. I remember reading an article about Saad Eskander, the Director of Baghdad's national library, and his struggle to re-build the Iraqi people’s cultural heritage following the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime. In the midst of the chaos, more than 60 percent of the archives and a quarter of the collections were destroyed, burned, or stolen. Hundreds of years of history lost in an instant.
Okay, yes, it might seem a bit extreme to compare war-torn Iraq with the government shutdown— but there is a larger point I want to stress. Congressional Republicans have already urged ending federal support for arts and humanities agencies and cutting funding for Public Broadcasting. But our shared national culture is something Republicans and Democrats have in common, so we need to keep it open and forever evolving.
So how does one keep culture alive in a district defined by the government?
The frustration with Congress aside, being furloughed did make me more aware of the collective generosity and cultural heritage of DC. During the shutdown, cultural arts centers and private museums such as The Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, The National Geographic Museum, and The National Museum of Women in the Arts offered free admission for furloughed workers. And there were other ways that DC kept its unique culture alive during the shutdown. DC is usually characterized as a throng of career-obsessed workaholics, and businesses in the area, from lunch trucks to yoga centers, are dependent upon the patronage of these people. When the government shut down, people who were out of work had more time to enjoy and appreciate our district’s unique cultural offerings. We got the chance to stop to hear the jazz musicians outside DuPont Circle or listen to a poetry slam on the corner of 14th and U. Strangers talked to other strangers at coffee shops and food carts.
Daily life in DC has pretty much returned to normal, and yet will truly never be the same. The fight for cultural identity goes beyond keeping museums, cultural centers and public radio open and thriving. It means supporting local theater, galleries, art and music programs for children. It means people connecting with one another and starting conversations. My hope for post-shutdown DC is that people will continue to make those connections, support these causes, and show Congress that we intend to keep our cultural heritage alive.