WASHINGTON — The Smithsonian will open seven museums and the National Zoo next month, starting with the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., on May 5, the 60th anniversary of Alan Shepard becoming the first American in space.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum and its Renwick Gallery will open May 14, followed a week later by the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Zoo. The rest of the Smithsonian museums, including the popular Air and Space and Natural History museums, will open later in the year.
In step with the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art also announced that it will reopen its West Building on May 14 (after an almost six-month closure).
The reopenings come more than five months after the museums closed in late November for the second COVID-related shutdown of 2020. Most of Washington’s smaller, private museums have already reopened.
“We were concerned about another surge. Worse than not opening is opening and having to close again. We didn’t think we would have to do that when we opened last summer,” said Doug Hall, the Smithsonian’s coordinating officer for COVID-19. “Cases are flat, and they’re not getting worse. We didn’t see that fourth surge, so we think it’s safe.
“The vaccine being more widely available gives us a comfort level,” he added. “We’re not relying on it, but it makes it an easier decision.”
The museums and the zoo will use the same health and safety measures adopted last year to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Visitors must reserve free timed passes for entry and everyone age 2 and older must wear masks. Visitors must maintain social distancing and follow one-way paths and directions where applicable. There will be hand-sanitizing stations throughout the facilities. Visitors who are sick are asked to stay home.
Most of the facilities will operate on reduced hours, and all will limit visitors to 20 percent of capacity, Hall said. The days and hours of operation for the Smithsonian museums vary and can be found at si.edu. The buildings’ cafes will remain closed.
Smithsonian attendance was just 3.3 million last year, a small fraction of the 22.1 million recorded in 2019. All of the facilities closed March 14, and seven museums and the zoo reopened July through September on limited schedules before they shut down again on Nov. 23.
It took the Smithsonian two months to reopen these eight branches last year; this time it will need just 2 1/2 weeks.
“We were dipping our toe into the water,” Hall said of the first multi-phased opening, which began last July. “We can make it much tighter than before. We know we can do it safely.”
The Smithsonian decided to reopen Udvar-Hazy on May 5 so it can commemorate Shepard’s historic flight by displaying his Mercury capsule, Freedom 7, for the first time. While it may seem surprising that the zoo is not included in the first wave of reopenings, Hall downplayed that decision.
“The zoo and Udvar-Hazy were first last year because … they were thought to be more low-risk, more spread out,” he said. “Now we know they are all the same for safety, so we tweaked the sequence to make it more fair, give a couple others the opportunity upfront.”
Barring a pandemic-related setback, the Smithsonian plans to open the rest of the museums by the end of the year. “We expect most of the Mall museums will open within the summer, certainly by mid-fall and everything by the end of the year, including New York,” Hall said.
Free passes for Udvar-Hazy are available starting Friday, and passes for the other six Smithsonian museums and the zoo will be available a week before they open. An individual can reserve up to six passes each day (larger groups are prohibited) for a specific location; every visitor must have a pass. Passes can be obtained by visiting si.edu/visit or by calling 800-514-3849, Ext. 1.
The National Gallery of Art will follow the same protocols it used last summer and fall, although it will now require face coverings for everyone age 2 and older. Passes will be available starting May 10. The museum will operate daily from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; its renovated Garden Café will be open. The Sculpture Garden and its cafe have been open since Feb. 14.
Despite the reopening of many private museums, all eyes have been on the Smithsonian, the president of the local tourism board told The Washington Post in March.
“It is extremely important that those museums are open, but the perception is still tied to what happens with the Smithsonians,” Elliott Ferguson, president and chief executive of Destination DC, said then. “We are extremely excited about those that are open. We want the zoo and the other Smithsonians to open.”
“We wholeheartedly agree, but it’s got to be done safely,” Hall said this week in response.”We don’t want to contribute to a community’s problems, whether it’s the Smithsonian community, the D.C., Virginia, Maryland community or the country that visits us.”