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Sequester Cuts at the Smithsonian Slice a Crucial Piece of America

One of the joys of growing up in Washington, D.C. and, for a time, raising my son there, was the ability to go into the Smithsonian free of charge.

I was stunned when I went away to college and learned that people actually had to pay to go to a museum. The Smithsonian Institution, however, belongs to the American people and our tax dollars up front make it possible for residents and tourists from all over to visit without having to pony up an additional admission fee.

It is open to anyone who can get there.

Congress has swatted around the possibility of changing that, but for now has avoided forcing the Smithsonian to charge. But sequestration has found another way to limit public access to the museums.

Lonnae O’Neal Parker reported in The Washington Post that the Smithsonian would be closing small exhibit areas in the African Art Museum, the Smithsonian Castle and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, starting Wednesday, because of the across-the-board federal budget cuts.

The timing couldn’t be worse.

D.C. is in the throes of what I like to call “field trip season,” during which schoolchildren in the city and from around the country descend on the National Mall to visit the monuments, memorials and museums.

Long lines of yellow school buses parked along Constitution Avenue and other main drags in the area adjacent to the Mall are as much a sign of spring in Washington as the cherry blossoms.

Included in the $42 million in cuts announced Monday are “The Commons” on the first floor of the Castle, which includes such items as a Panda video and a helmet worn by Gen. Charles Yeager; an education room adjacent to the “African Mosaic” permanent exhibit in the African Art Museum; and some sections of the third floor that house permanent collection items in the Hirshhorn Museum, which features modern and abstract art and sculpture.

The closures come because the museum had to cut the size of the security contract, meaning the Smithsonian had to target which areas could be closed with minimal impact on the public.

But this is the only latest round of cuts taken by the Smithsonian.

A hiring freeze was instituted; there were cuts in travel for staff and some building maintenance, as well as gallery closures on a rotating basis.

Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas told The Post that the three latest closures would remain in effect until the end of the fiscal year or until Congress enacts new legislation.

Bigger cuts may come this summer if the sequester continues, the Smithsonian said.

The impact, though, is greater than what is hoped to be a temporary inconvenience for tourists.

The hiring freeze means fewer employees doing more work. It means a longer job search for people who travel, research, acquire and catalog the things that help us to understand the world and its myriad of cultures. It means less opportunity for learning for children, students, those who can’t afford to travel outside the confines of their cities or whose schools and libraries don’t have the resources to provide additional enrichment, or the just plain curious.

Perhaps it won’t be noticeable at first, but putting off repairs or tending to restrooms and eating areas less frequently will begin to give the buildings that dowdy, neglected, unwelcoming look.

Congress and the Obama administration agreed to sequestration because neither side ever thought they would get to the point that the draconian measures would take effect. Never thought we would be dealing with matters such as the shut down of small, regional airports and longer TSA security lines.

But it has come to this: The Smithsonian and the respite it offers from daily worries,  the dreams it offers to aspiring writers, archaeologists and anthropologists could be squelched, just a little at a time. It is difficult to contemplate.

Like the Airwick vacuum cleaner my mother used when I was a child, the black-and-white television and “rabbit ears” antenna, my memories of free, unfettered access to history and culture may end up catalogued and stored in the Museum of American History, hidden from the view of the next generation of curious eyes and minds.

Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”

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