House Hearing on Climate Readiness for Smithsonian’s Collections

The Committee on House Administration held a hearing on December 16th on the threats posed by climate change on the collections and facilities of the Smithsonian Institution.

“In Washington, and in particular on the National Mall, the effects of climate change most significantly would be in the form of sea level rise and flooding,” said Chairperson Zoe Lofgren (D-CA). “The changing climate poses a danger to the Smithsonian’s facilities and the irreplaceable treasures contained therein.” Lofgren also called climate change “a threat to our preserved history and future generations’ access to it.”

The New York Times recently documented how floodwaters are seeping into some of Smithsonian’s buildings. And one witness before the committee described the area as “the bottom of a bowl,” with water coming from all sides. More intense storms also increase the risk for wind damage. However, no item in Smithsonian’s collections have been damaged to date because of flooding.

The Smithsonian released a climate change action plan this year. The most vulnerable facilities are the National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of American History, which are flood-prone and have extensive below ground storage spaces. The Institution’s facilities director, Nancy Bechtol, said that the risks highlighted in the Times articles are known risks and that as climate changes, it’s becoming more challenging to maintain environmental controls for collections.

Smithsonian is gradually replacing open shelving with gasketed storage cabinetry to protect collections from water and humidity. Additionally, a new storage building in Suitland, Maryland will store some art collections currently housed in basements.

Cathy Helm, the Inspector General for the Smithsonian Institution, reminded the committee of the “pattern of issues, such as inadequate preservation practices, insufficient inventory controls, and security of collections that do not meet Smithsonian standards” and “long-standing challenges” in deferred maintenance that are only worsening with time. The net effect is that Smithsonian’s collections “are already at risk…it’s not just future risk.”

Committee members raised questions about the Smithsonian’s maintenance funding levels. The requested budget was for 1 percent of current replacement value, which is well below the 2-4 percent recommended by the National Research Council.

Ranking Member Rodney Davis (R-IL) called for a stop to the “hypocrisy of building new museums” while also planning for more flooding in the area. During the course of the hearing, however, information was presented about the success of designing the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016, to withstand flooding.

House Hearing on Climate Readiness for Smithsonian’s Collections
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