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Smithsonian initiates final reopenings

by Peggy McGlone, The Washington Post | June 6, 2021 at 2:04 a.m.
The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History will reopen June 18. (The Washington Post/Katherine Frey)

WASHINGTON — After reopening seven museums and the National Zoo in May, the Smithsonian will welcome visitors to the popular National Museum of Natural History and nine other sites over a span of 11 weeks beginning Thursday, officials announced May 26.

Like the other Smithsonian facilities, these 10 museums will open at about 25% capacity, with reduced hours and social distancing measures. The museums have been shuttered since March 14, 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic. The capacity will increase over time.

"After 461 days of being closed, I'm so looking forward to it," Natural History Museum director Kirk Johnson said about reopening June 18. "You think of the 6 or 7 million people who could have come during that time. And our exhibit, 'Outbreak,' is about pandemics. You really wish people could have been here."

The Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York will be the first of this final group to reopen on Thursday. The Natural History Museum opens June 18, followed by the National Museum of the American Indian in New York on June 23.

STAGGERED OPENINGS

The National Museum of African Art and the National Museum of Asian Art Freer Gallery will reopen July 16. (Construction unrelated to covid-19 will keep the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery closed until November.) The National Air and Space Museum and the public galleries in the Smithsonian's administration building, known as the Castle, reopen July 30.

Three more open in August: The Anacostia Community Museum on Aug. 6, the Hirshhorn Museum on Aug. 20 and the National Postal Museum on Aug. 27. The Hirshhorn's sculpture garden is already open to the public. In November, the Smithsonian will open the historic Arts and Industries Building for "Futures," an exhibition celebrating the Smithsonian's 175th anniversary.

After closing all of its sites in March of last year because of restrictions brought on by the pandemic, the Smithsonian made a limited comeback in July with a multistage reopening that began with the National Zoo and the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., on July 24. The Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Renwick Gallery reopened Sept. 18, with the National Museum of American History and the National Museum of the American Indian following Sept. 25. All seven closed Nov. 23 as covid-19 cases spiked in the region.

Last month, the Smithsonian again returned in stages, starting with the Udvar-Hazy Center on May 5, followed by the African American Museum, American Art Museum, National Portrait Gallery and the Renwick Gallery on May 14, and the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Zoo a week later.

A diplodocus that lived 152 million years looms tall in the Natural History Museum’s fossil hall. (The Washington Post/Katherine Frey)
A diplodocus that lived 152 million years looms tall in the Natural History Museum’s fossil hall. (The Washington Post/Katherine Frey)

OUTDOOR SHOWS

Although its building has been closed, the Anacostia Community Museum opened two outdoor exhibitions this year — "Men of Change: Taking It to the Streets," in the Deanwood neighborhood in February and "Food for the People: Eating and Activism in Greater Washington" in April on the plaza outside the museum. A companion exhibition on food justice will welcome visitors when they return in August.

"You will see more of the history of activism around food justice. You will learn a lot more about food systems. This takes a larger look the whole food system and how it is set up and how it might not be serving communities of color in a way that is successful," Anacostia Community Museum director Melanie Adams said.

"We're just so excited to share all of the work we have been doing these last 15 months," she added. "Even though our doors were closed, we were open to finding new ways to reach out. We settled in and continued to do the work."

The Natural History Museum is one of the largest of the Smithsonian sites, a fact that has kept it closed when other popular Smithsonian museums reopened last year, Johnson said. Although it is housed in one of the Smithsonian's older buildings, the facility's ventilation was not to blame.

"We have the largest behind-the-scenes program and that's one of the reasons we weren't at the front of the line (to reopen)," Johnson said, referring to the museum's extensive research work supporting the exhibitions. "It's a function of how many people we had to mobilize."

PROCEEDING WITH CAUTION

Visitors to the museum will enter on the National Mall side and exit on Constitution Avenue to help minimize crowding at the entry points, Johnson said. All of the first-floor galleries will be open — including the dinosaurs — as will the second-floor galleries that display the Hope diamond and "Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World." That timely show has been updated, Johnson said.

"Tony Fauci came to the opening (in May 2018), and I remember he said it's not unlikely we'll get a global pandemic during the run of this exhibit," Johnson said.

Each museum will operate five days a week (with the exception of the Castle, which will open daily), with staggered schedules so that at least one facility is open every day. Hours and days are found on individual museum websites.

The Smithsonian will follow safety measures based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including asking visitors who do not feel well to stay home; requiring visitors ages 2 and older to wear face coverings (although fully vaccinated individuals do not need to wear masks in outdoor spaces); using social distancing techniques such as one-way directional paths; providing hand sanitizing stations and conducting enhanced cleaning. Officials anticipate some of these measures will be rolled back as the summer progresses, if conditions continue to improve.

PASSES AND TICKETS

Seven of the venues will require free timed passes for entry, while the National Postal Museum, Anacostia Community Museum and the American Indian Museum in New York will not. The Cooper Hewitt, which charges admission, will offer free tickets through Oct. 31.

Passes are available a week before the scheduled reopenings at si.edu/visit or by calling (800) 514-3849, Extension 1. Each visitor, regardless of age, must have a pass; up to six can be reserved, by one individual for a specific location. Groups larger than six are prohibited.

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