Climate change threatens Smithsonian museums

WASHINGTON – President Warren Harding’s blue silk pajamas. Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves. The star spangled banner, sewn by Betsy Ross. Scripts from the M * A * S * H ​​TV show.

Nearly two million irreplaceable artifacts that tell American history are housed in the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian Institution, the largest museum complex in the world.

Now, due to climate change, the Smithsonian is standing out for another reason: its valuable buildings are extremely vulnerable to flooding, and some could possibly be underwater.

Eleven sumptuous Smithsonian museums and galleries form a ring around the National Mall, the expansive three-kilometer park lined with elms that stretches from the Lincoln Memorial to the United States Capitol.

But this land was once a swamp. And as the planet heats up, buildings face two threats. Rising waters will eventually push water out of the Potomac River to tide and submerge parts of the mall, scientists say. More immediately, increasingly heavy torrential rains threaten museums and their invaluable collections, especially since many are stored in basements.

At the American History Museum, water is already breaking in.

It gurgles through the basement floor. He finds the spaces between the windows at ground level, a puddle of water around the exhibits. It weaves its way through the conduits, then winds its way through the building and drips onto the windows. He crawls through the ceiling into locked collection rooms like thieves and ground pools.

Staff experimented with defenses: candy-red flood barriers lined up outside the windows. Sensors that resemble electronic mousetraps, deployed throughout the building, which trigger alarms when wet. Plastic trash cans on wheels, filled with a version of cat litter, to be pushed back and forth to soak up the water.

So far, the museum’s funds have escaped damage. But “We’re kind of in trial and error,” said Ryan Doyle, Smithsonian facilities manager. “It’s about managing water.

A Smithsonian vulnerability assessment released last month reveals the scale of the challenge: Not only are artifacts stored in basements at risk, but flooding could damage electrical and ventilation systems in basements that keep humidity at the right level to protect priceless art, textiles, documents and specimens on display.

Of all its facilities, the Smithsonian ranks American history as the most vulnerable, followed by its next-door neighbor, the National Museum of Natural History.

Scientists at the nonprofit group Climate Central expect some land around the two museums to be underwater at high tide if average global temperatures rise 1.5 degrees Celsius, above pre-industrial levels. The planet has already warmed by 1.1 degrees Celsius and is on track to increase by 3 degrees by 2100.

Smithsonian officials want to build flood gates and other defenses, and move some collections to a proposed site in suburban Maryland. But Congress has yet to fund many of these efforts, and the changes would take years to implement.

Until then, the Smithsonian struggles with this fact: a well-funded, well-funded public institution staffed with leading experts, protects the nation’s treasures with sandbags and trash cans.

“We follow the rain like you wouldn’t believe,” said Nancy Bechtol, facilities manager for the Smithsonian. “We’re constantly monitoring this weather forecast to see if we have one coming up. “

One recent morning, a group of employees gathered in the lobby of the American History Museum to point out where the water is entering.

The room featured a wooden cotton planter used by a South Carolina farmer. A Super Surfer skateboard ridden by Patti McGee, the first professional skater. The cream colored Fender Esquire that Steve Cropper played when he recorded “(Sittin ‘On) The Dock of the Bay” with Otis Redding.

“Definitely, where we are could flood,” Ms. Bechtol said.

She fears a huge, persistent storm – like Hurricane Harvey smothered Houston in 2017, or Ida flooded New York City this summer.

Building manager Mark Proctor

led the group on Southern Railway 1401, a massive steam locomotive manufactured in 1926. The train sits by a window that overlooks a garden on the east side of the building. In March, a storm flooded the garden. Water entered through the window and collected around the steel wheels of the 1401.

“We had to suck up the water,” Mr. Proctor said. Outside, staff pushed flood barriers against the windows to slow down the water during the next flood.

Mr. Proctor took a freight elevator to the basement, then entered a room containing electrical and HVAC equipment that forms the building’s life support system. Without it, the air would become hot and humid, damaging the collections.

Mr. Proctor gestured towards a wall. “This is where the water entered the building,” he said, recalling the storm in March. Nearby was one of the building’s two back-up generators, which Mr. Proctor hopes to move to the fifth floor.

“Your generator won’t work if it’s in water,” he said.

Beside the mechanical room, Robert Horton stopped in front of a locked door. Mr. Horton is Deputy Director of Collections and Archives. His favorite American History article is a homemade prosthetic leg by a coal miner circa 1950..

After swiping his badge over an electronic sensor, Mr. Horton entered a small room with a low ceiling, filled with cupboards containing exquisite porcelain pieces. “All the way back, you know, to the invention of porcelain,” he said.

When the building opened in 1964, the basement was not designed to store collections, Mr Horton said. But as the museum’s funds grew, it filled up.

Mr. Horton walked to the corner of the room where water had passed through the ceiling during the March storm. The water residue was still visible.

Plastic sheeting had been placed on top of a cabinet, positioned to direct leaks into a trash can. Around him were squares of dark fabric, designed to soak up water that trash may lack. “Because we fear this will happen again, we have left a lot of the protective gear in place,” said Mr. Horton.

Down the hall, shelves in another bedroom were stacked floor to ceiling with treated cardboard boxes that Mr. Horton said were designed to repel water. They were filled with Vaudeville scripts, papers from Lenora Slaughter, who ran the Miss America contest from 1941 to 1967, and documents from the Civilian Conservation Corps from the Depression era, including a box labeled “Poems. of the CCC ”.

Mr Horton pointed to rows of boxes containing documents about Father Charles Coughlin, whose radio sermons and weekly magazine from the 1930s were described as “instruments of anti-Semitism” in his New York Times obituary.

The boxes were placed on open shelves, the lowest of which barely protruded from the floor.

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 museum lawn and poured into the building.

In response, officials offered ways to better protect the mall, including a $ 400 million pumping station.

None of these projects were built, in part because the responsibility for controlling the flooding at the mall is divided among several entities, including the National Park Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, the District Water Service of Columbia and the National Capital Planning Commission, Julia said. Koster, public engagement manager for the commission.

“It is necessary to determine who should lead the charge on this matter,” said Ms Koster.

The Smithsonian, which receives more than half of its funding from Congress and the rest from private sources, has repeatedly asked the government for money since 2015 to start work on a $ 160 million storage site in Suitland , in Maryland, for articles on American history. museum and the National Gallery of Art.

So far, the Smithsonian has invested $ 6 million in the new storage facility, taken from a larger amount of money spent on planning and design. Construction, which was originally slated to be completed by 2020, has yet to begin.

The Smithsonian is seeking an additional $ 500,000 to begin work on a separate $ 39 million plan for flood walls and other changes to fortify the American History Museum. This project is in the early stages of planning, said Linda St. Thomas, spokesperson for the Smithsonian.

Some other Smithsonian museums are more advanced. The National Air and Space Museum will install flood relief valves 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 its lower levels from filling with groundwater.

Meanwhile, the funds of the American History Museum are waiting for a solution.

“I don’t want to rush,” Ms. Bechtol said, noting that moving the collections involved not only planning and building a new facility, but also careful handling of each item. “There’s really not much we can do, I guess, and do it carefully and well. “

The tour resumed, passing through a second mechanical room, where groundwater bubbled through the lowest point in the ground, even though it was not raining. The history museum is located on what was once the Tiber stream, which was filled in during the 1800s.

The group emerged into a cafeteria, where floor-to-ceiling windows overlook a quiet garden at the foot of a 35-ton Alexander Calder sculpture. This section of the museum is below street level. The garden slopes up to 14th Street, forming a giant bowl that fills with water when it rains.

“So far, it’s just happened,” said Ms Bechtol, who wants to build a wall around the garden to keep water out. “It’s like a swimming pool.

The tension between protecting the collection and keeping it accessible to the public will not disappear in a museum built on top of a swamp. “For us, the best kind of museum is a closed box with no window or door,” Mr. Doyle said, perhaps half-jokingly. “It doesn’t work very well when you’re trying to attract visitors. “

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