News & Politics

Report: Climate Change Is Messing With the Smithsonian Collections

At the American History Museum, staff are testing a cat litter-like material to absorb water.

Photograph via iStock.

The New York Times published a distressing dispatch from the Smithsonian on Thanksgiving last week, saying that due to climate change, the museums’ collections are “extremely vulnerable to flooding, and some [buildings] could eventually be underwater.”

The story says the two main threats to the Smithsonian are the Potomac River, which will eventually flood parts of the National Mall due to rising sea levels, and, in the shorter term, intense rainstorms. The museums store major parts of their collections in basements—which can be flood-prone. 

Here are some of the other takeaways:

  • Smithsonian ranked the American History Museum as its most threatened property, followed by the Natural History Museum. The Hirshhorn is less threatened by flooding. 


  • Water is already finding its way into the American History Museum. “It finds the gaps between ground-level windows, puddling around exhibits,” the Times writes. “It sneaks into the ductwork, then meanders the building and drips onto display cases. It creeps through the ceiling in locked collection rooms, thief-like, and pools on the floor.”


  • Staff at American History are testing a variety of mechanisms to stave off water damage. “Candy-red flood barriers lined up outside windows. Sensors that resemble electronic mouse traps, deployed throughout the building, that trigger alarms when wet. Plastic bins on wheels, filled with a version of cat litter, to be rushed back and forth to soak up the water.” In March, a big rainstorm caused flooding around a Southern Railway train from 1926.


  • Figuring out how to pay for climate-change defenses for the museums is a big problem. The Smithsonian has been requesting money from Congress since 2015 to build a new storage facility in Suitland, Maryland, to house items from the National Gallery of Art and the American History Museum. The project was originally supposed to be done by 2020—but construction has yet to start.


  • At least two museums have flood prevention methods underway: the National Air and Space Museum is building flood gates as part of its renovation project. The National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016, was built with three large water pumps to prevent flooding on lower levels. 

Jason Fontelieu
Editorial Fellow