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What the Government Shutdown Means for Museum-led Conservation

A Curatorial Perspective

Chase D. Brownstein

In the past month, it’s become common to see signs in front of our country’s cultural institutions saying something like “X is closed due to a lapse in appropriations.” Calling this a “lapse” doesn’t do the current crisis justice. This shutdown, the longest in history, has created mass chaos within our government and for so many aspects of our society. Federal workers are struggling to make ends meet, national parks are being destroyed and students are losing access to fresh foods at the cafeteria counter. This storm, the work of the Trump Administration and congressional Republicans, intensifies by the day.


One aspect of the shutdown that has led me and other researchers to panic is the stripping of funds from museum workers and scientific collections. The Smithsonian, which houses one of the largest collections of natural history specimens in the National Museum of Natural History, is closed, along with so many other museums and cultural sites funded by the federal government. Museum workers who curate and research collected specimens key for understanding and combating our current global conservation crisis, are struggling for money and anxious for what this year holds.


A loss of funding spells danger for the protection and curation of museum collections, which are essential for unlocking trends in biodiversity (e.g., Suarez & Tsutsui, 2004). In addition to the impact this shutdown has had on studying the health of ecosystems in the United States and elsewhere, the lack of funding has rattled the pursuit of science in this nation. The National Science Foundation (NSF), which supports huge numbers of scientists in their research (see more on NSF funding), is not responding to phone calls or emails (see more from NSF on the government shutdown). The gears of scientific exploration in America are quickly grinding to a halt.


The public impact of the closure of federally-funded museums and other cultural sites is also horrifying. With these institutions closed, many are unable to access important educational resources. Communities that rely on federally-funded tourist attractions are feeling a heavy burden.


It is essential that this government is reopened. It is inexcusable that Donald Trump continues to deny the people of the United States funding for components essential to the health of our society.

The trunk of a giant redwood at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in Colorado. Ecosystems like that preserved at this site offer information we can use to model changes in past climate and biodiversity.


References. Suarez AV, Tsutsui ND. 2004. The value of museum collections for research and society. BioScience 54: 66–74.


Chase Brownstein is a Sierra Club Connecticut member and Research Associate, Stamford Museum and Nature Center

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