It was on my most recent trip to Washington, D.C., that I took museum-hopping to new heights.
Dispatched on the National Mall, having the whole morning and most of the afternoon to squeeze in as much exploring as I could, I managed to survey the National Gallery, the Air and Space Museum, the Museums of Natural and American History, the Hirshhorn Museum and the Freer and Sackler Galleries of Art, before limping to the nearest park bench and calling it a day.
While such a high-octane binge of Americana was partly the consequence of my maniacally idiosyncratic personality, it was also due to an oft-overlooked perk of tourism in our nation’s capital: Many of America’s most treasured national institutions are free.
Undeniably, the City of New York boasts some of the finest collections of art and culture in the civilized world, from the sprawling Metropolitan to the more intimate Whitney, and one could spend a week (or a month or a year) doing nothing but visiting them from dawn to dusk.
However, it would cost you more than a pretty penny to do so—admission prices run in the double digits for even the most modest of Gotham’s galleries—naturally leading you to slow down and take in as much of each repository as possible, if only to feel that you were getting your money’s worth.
Not so at places like the Smithsonian, where you can pop in and out at your leisure, see what you want to see and move on, without having to worry about running up a stiff tab in the process. Same with our war memorials and presidential monuments: Quintessentially American, they represent all of us, and so they belong to all of us, as our great national playground.
In more innocent days, this was something we more or less took for granted. However, since the federal government closed for business on the first of the month, this is no longer the case.
As we know but sometimes need to be reminded, nothing makes you more thankful for what you have than suddenly not having it anymore.
Recall: When the government shutdown began, the gripe that stood as a symbol for all the others was not about delayed social security payments or the absence of proper food inspections, but rather that Americans could no longer see the pandas at the National Zoo.
While such a complaint was partially tongue-in-cheek and knowingly petty and self-serving, it nonetheless illustrated the desire of most people for the continued tradition of having truly “public” institutions in the United States—places that we are allowed to take for granted, because they are far too important to forsake. If we do not possess the wherewithal to keep the Panda Cam running, then shame on us!
One lesson of this shutdown, then, is that maybe we can’t take anything for granted after all. That even in the world’s largest economy, memorials and museums are luxury items.
There is a small paradox involved here: The entire National Park Service comprises a positively microscopic portion of the federal budget, yet it is simultaneously among the most vulnerable to budget cuts in lean times.
This means that we open and close our cultural institutions based purely on our values—much as we do with the components of the government that are far more expensive to maintain.
The proof of this, with regards to our parks, is how we have managed to reopen a select group of sites even as the shutdown goes on. The Statue of Liberty’s torch was reignited over the Columbus Day weekend, with a dozen or so other tourist traps following suit—albeit for only a week or two—thanks to a series of funding deals between the Department of the Interior and individual states.
Why has this happened? Because the American people demanded it. Because it turns out that we highly value our national landmarks—some of which provide excellent vacation destinations—and would render ourselves poorer as a people without them.
I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way. Americans ought to treasure the objects of their national heritage and take umbrage when access to them is withheld through the shenanigans of their silly government.
Does this sentiment reek of selfishness? You bet it does. Are you suggesting that your demand for a social security check or a Salmonella-free steak does not?
Either our government owes us certain goods and services or it doesn’t. We each value our respective entitlements differently, and would miss them to varying degrees were they to disappear.
The privilege of touring the National Mall for free is not the most essential of American birthrights. But if some future economic crisis forced it to go away forever, I would miss it all the same.