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Whitworth students shut out of Smithsonian

A closed sign is posted on the gate of Smithsonian’s National Zoo on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019, in Washington, D.C. (Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)
A closed sign is posted on the gate of Smithsonian’s National Zoo on Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019, in Washington, D.C. (Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

For a group of Whitworth University students, the partial shutdown of the federal government is suddenly much more than a news item.

It’s real life.

Months ago, they enrolled in a three-week academic program that promised, among other things, a “behind-the-scenes experience of the breadth of knowledge in the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum, education and research complex, in Washington, D.C.”

Their timing couldn’t have been worse.

They landed on Wednesday to news that the Smithsonian, the National Zoo and almost every other federally operated site has been closed indefinitely.

“Essentially, 85 percent of what we were planning on doing was associated with the Smithsonian Institution,” said Whitworth Biology Professor Aaron Putzke, who is overseeing the trip. “But the students are having a great attitude,” Putzke said.

Now in its fifth year, the Smithsonian trip is one of 12 choices offered through Whitworth’s wide-ranging Jan Term program.

While other students looked ahead to studying art in Rome or Christianity in Britain, the D.C. group had spent months planning an in-depth exploration of America’s Attic, a nickname for the Smithsonian.

However, the attic is locked until further notice. There will be no trips to the Air and Space Museum, no behind-the-scenes look at the national treasures in multiple museums.

Also on the calendar was a series of meetings with researchers in a variety of specialty fields. The goal, according to Putzke, was to get a better perspective on ethics and the public domain.

Even when it’s open, America’s Attic has only so much room. “What do we preserve for the public domain – we want to give students an understanding of how all of that works,” Putzke said.

Unfortunately the people with the answers aren’t available because they’re on furlough.

Instead, Putzke is working on setting up meetings with Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers. This is an interdisciplinary exercise, after all, and politics is part of the experience.

“It’s certainly disappointing at some level,” said Putzke, who arrived in D.C. with his family a week earlier as the shutdown began.

Sensing that the shutdown could last awhile, Putzke had a backup plan that will last to the end of the trip on Jan. 24.

“This is a very vibrant and active city,” said Putzke, who’s already planned an outing to the Kennedy Center.

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