WASHINGTON – President Warren Harding’s blue silk pajamas. Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves. Star banner embroidered by Betsy Ross. Scripts from the TV show M * A * S * H.
Nearly two million irreplaceable artifacts that tell American history are housed in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, the largest museum complex in the world.
Now, due to climate change, the Smithsonian Institution stands out for another reason: its cherished buildings are extremely vulnerable to flooding, and some may end up under water.
Eleven opulent Smithsonian museums and galleries form the ring of the National Mall, an immense two-mile elm-lined park that stretches from the Lincoln Memorial to the US Capitol.
But once this land was a swamp. And as the planet heats up, buildings face two threats. The rising sea will eventually push water from the tidal Potomac River and flood parts of the mall, scientists say. Moreover, increasingly heavy downpours threaten museums and their invaluable funds, especially as many of them are stored in basements.
Water is already invading the American Museum of History.
It gurgles across the basement floor. He finds gaps between windows at ground level, puddles around exhibits. It sneaks into the ducts, then wriggles through the building and drips onto the windows. It crawls through the ceiling in locked collection rooms like a thief and in puddles on the floor.
Staff experimented with protection: candy-red flood barriers lined up outside the windows. Throughout the building, sensors are installed, similar to electronic mousetraps, which are triggered when wet. Rolling plastic bins filled with some sort of cat litter must be thrown back and forth to soak up the water.
So far, the museum funds have survived. But “we’re kind of in a process of trial and error,” said Ryan Doyle, production manager at the Smithsonian. “It’s about water management.”
The Smithsonian Vulnerability Assessment, released last month, shows the magnitude of the problem: not only are artifacts stored in basements at risk, but floods can also disable electrical and ventilation systems in basements that maintain moisture levels for protection. invaluable art, textiles, documents and exhibits.
Of all its institutions, the Smithsonian ranks American history among the most vulnerable, followed by its closest neighbor, the National Museum of Natural History.
Scientists at the non-profit group Climate Central expect some of the land around the two museums to be submerged at high tide if the global average temperature rises 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The planet has already warmed up by 1.1 degrees Celsius and will rise by 3 degrees by 2100.
Smithsonian officials want to build locks and other defenses, as well as relocate some of the collections to a proposed location in the Maryland suburbs. But Congress has yet to fund many of these efforts, and the changes will take years to implement.
Until then, the Smithsonian is battling this fact: a beloved institution, well-funded and staffed by top-tier professionals, is protecting national treasures with sandbags and trash cans.
“We watch the rain like you would not believe,” said Nancy Bechtol, head of production at the Smithsonian Institution. “We are constantly monitoring these weather forecasts to know if we will have it.”
“Where we stand, it can flood”
Recently in the morning, a group of staff gathered in the lobby of the American History Museum to point out where the water goes.
In the lobby was a wooden cotton planter used by a tenant farmer in South Carolina. Super Surfer skateboard, ridden by Patti McGee, the first female professional skateboarder. The creamy Fender Esquire that Steve Cropper played when he recorded (Sittin ‘On) The Dock of the Bay with Otis Redding.
“It can definitely flood where we are,” said Ms Bekhtol.
She fears an ongoing heavy storm – like Hurricane Harvey strangled Houston in 2017 or Ida flooded New York this summer.
Building Manager Mark Proctor,
led the group to the 1401 South Railway, a tall steam locomotive built in 1926. The train is parked by the window overlooking the garden on the east side of the building. In March, the garden was flooded with a storm. Water flowed through the window and collected around the 1401 steel wheels.
“We had to moisten the water with a vacuum cleaner,” said Mr. Proctor. Outside, staff moved safety barriers to the windows to slow the flow of water the next time it floods.
Mr. Proctor went down to the basement in a freight elevator, then entered a room containing the electrical and climatic equipment that make up the building’s life support system. Without it, the air would become hot and humid, damaging the collections.
Mr. Proctor pointed to the wall. “This is where the water got into the building,” he said, recalling the March storm. Nearby was one of the building’s two emergency generators, which Mr. Proctor hopes to move to the fifth floor.
“Your generator will not work if it is in water,” he said.
Outside the mechanical room, Robert Horton stopped at a locked door. Mr. Horton is Assistant Director for Collections and Archives. His favorite subject in American history is a homemade prosthetic leg made by a miner around 1950.
Passing his badge over the electronic gauge, Mr. Horton entered a small, low-ceilinged room crowded with cupboards containing exquisite china. “From the very beginning until the invention of porcelain,” he said.
When the building opened in 1964, Horton said, the basement was not intended to hold collections. But as the funds of the museum grew, it was replenished.
Mr. Horton walked to the corner of the room where water seeped through the ceiling during the March storm. Remnants of the water were still visible.
One cabinet was covered with plastic wrap directed so that leaks were directed to a trash can. Around it were dark squares of cloth designed to absorb the water that the trash can was leaking. “Because we fear this could happen again, we left a lot of protective material in place,” said Mr. Horton.
Down the hallway, the shelves of another cell were filled from floor to ceiling with treated cardboard boxes that Mr. Horton said were designed to repel water. They were filled with vaudeville scripts, papers by Lenora Slaughter, who hosted the Miss America pageant from 1941 to 1967, and recordings from the Depression Civilian Conservation Corps, including a box labeled “CCC Poems”.
Mr. Horton pointed to rows of boxes of documents about Father Charles Caflin, whose 1930s radio sermons and weekly magazine were described as “tools of anti-Semitism” in his New York Times obituary.
The boxes were on open shelves, the bottom of which barely lifted off the floor.
Who is guilty?
In 2006, a storm left three feet of water on Constitution Avenue, which runs along the north side of the museum. Water pushed cars from the street onto the lawn of the museum and poured into the building.
In response, officials have suggested ways to better protect the mall, including a $ 400 million pumping station.
None of these projects were built, in part because responsibility for flood control at the mall was split among several organizations, including the National Park Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, the DC water utility and the National Capital Planning Commission, Julia said. Koster, head of the public relations department of the commission.
“There is a need to find out who should lead the charge in this,” said Ms Koster.
The Smithsonian, which receives more than half of its funding from Congress and the rest from private sources, has repeatedly requested money from the government since 2015 to begin work on a $ 160 million repository of American history items in Sweetland, Maryland. Museum and National Art Gallery.
So far, the Smithsonian has invested $ 6 million in the new vault, drawn from a larger bank of planning and design money. Construction, which was originally supposed to be completed by 2020, has not yet begun.
The Smithsonian is seeking another $ 500,000 to begin work on a separate $ 39 million plan for flood protection and other changes to strengthen the American Museum of History. “This project is in the early stages of planning,” said Linda St. Thomas, spokeswoman for the Smithsonian Institution.
Several other Smithsonian museums are ahead. The National Air and Space Museum will install a flood gate as part of a multi-year renovation that is expected to total more than $ 1 billion. The mall’s newest addition, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, was built with three massive pumps to keep the lower levels from filling up with groundwater.
Meanwhile, the funds of the American Museum of History are awaiting a decision.
“I don’t want to rush,” said Ms Bekhtol, noting that moving collections requires not only planning and building a new facility, but also careful handling of each item. “I think we can really do so much, and do it carefully and do it well.”
‘Like a pool’
The tour resumed, passing through a second mechanical room, where groundwater bubbled at the lowest point of the floor, although there was no rain. The Historical Museum is located on the site of the former Tiber stream, flooded in the 1800s.
The group entered the cafeteria, which has floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a tranquil garden at the foot of a 35-ton sculpture by Alexander Calder. This part of the museum is below street level. The garden descends to 14th Street, forming a giant bowl that fills with water when it rains.
“Right now, it’s just coming in,” said Ms. Behtol, who wants to build a wall around the garden to keep water out. “It’s like a pool.”
The tension between protecting a collection and keeping it accessible to the public will not disappear in a museum built on a swamp. “For us, the best museum is a closed box with no windows and no doors,” said Mr. Doyle, perhaps half in jest. “It doesn’t work very well when you’re trying to attract visitors.”