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Smithsonian Museums Spring Back To Life After Government Reopens

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today, tourists in Washington, D.C., no longer need to be disappointed by the limited museum offerings as of late. Thanks to the end of the government shutdown, the Smithsonian Institution reopens its museums, along with the National Zoo. It all happens this morning. As NPR's Rebecca Ellis reports, getting it all up and running was no easy task.

REBECCA ELLIS, BYLINE: The Smithsonian museums are springing back to life.

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ELLIS: With the end of the shutdown, the National Museum of Natural History's 500 furloughed staff members all came back to work Monday, but many arrived to find things a little out of whack.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Neither are amphibians and reptiles over here - uh-huh.

ELLIS: Some of the museum's videos wouldn't play properly because the software had become outdated. The museum's project manager, Siobhan Starrs, says the fluid that preserves the dead squid had turned.

SIOBHAN STARRS: So you can see looking in there it looks kind of cloudy.

ELLIS: And the Easter Island sculpture was not yet ready for its debut.

STARRS: We had moved this beautiful Easter Island head that a lot of people recognize as Dumb Dumb from the movies.

ELLIS: The figure's look-alike had a starring role in "Night At The Museum" as a talking sculpture desperate for some chewing gum.

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BRAD GARRETT: (As Easter Island Head) You new Dumb Dumb. You give me gum gum.

ELLIS: Yesterday afternoon, staff was securing the head in its new location near the entrance, ready to greet visitors. Last Friday, when it was clear the shutdown was coming to an end, the Smithsonian Institution sprang into action. They promised to open everything by Tuesday. This meant a hectic Monday for Siobhan Starrs.

STARRS: Imagine you had to shut your home down for 38 days and then all of a sudden open the doors.

ELLIS: Except, she points out, it's not a home. It's a 300,000-square-foot building that's over a century old. And it's not just a few guests coming through.

STARRS: And your home is going to open and welcome over 50,000 visitors, potentially, the first day you open the door.

ELLIS: Most Smithsonian museums spent the day scurrying to get their exhibits presentable for the crowds. At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, director Melissa Chiu says staff spent much of the day lugging water around for an installation that displays people's pulses in ripples.

MELISSA CHIU: We drained it, and now we have to fill it all up again (laughter).

ELLIS: In Manhattan, the Cooper Hewitt's head of exhibitions, Yvonne Gomez, finally got into the building to see how the museum's exhibit on color had fared in her absence. She'd been worried about leaving out a bunch of rare books, like a 1704 treatise by Isaac Newton on prisms.

YVONNE GOMEZ: We had four hours to shut down indefinitely.

ELLIS: The books were fine. There was just a lot of dust.

GOMEZ: We did a very deep cleaning of mainly dusting - no bugs or anything like that.

ELLIS: By today, she says, it should be sparkling.

GOMEZ: We're excited to be open to the public. This is our mission.

ELLIS: Siobhan Starrs says she can't wait to hear the footsteps echoing through the entrance of the Natural History Museum.

STARRS: It was a dark kind of cold, quiet space. It felt very lonely. We miss our visitors.

ELLIS: The museum's director, Kirk Johnson, was on site through the shutdown, and he says it was just like the movies.

KIRK JOHNSON: I was here every day. It was a big night at the museum and a big day at the museum. I was the only person on the entire third floor.

ELLIS: He's really looking forward to having some company.

JOHNSON: We'll be very happy to see a huge crowd at 10 a.m.

ELLIS: He'll be downstairs to greet visitors personally. Rebecca Ellis, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "TIME FOR SPACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.