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Indian Museum Experiences Minor Earthquake Damage

WASHINGTON – The collection of the National Museum of the American Indian in the nation’s capital suffered minor damage on August 23 as a result of a rare 5.8 Richter Scale earthquake centered in nearby Virginia.

Smithsonian officials said that a handful of items – approximately five from the museum’s vast exhibition of Indian artifacts – fell as the quake rumbled shortly before 2 p.m. ET. The items were being examined in the aftermath to assess the extent of the damage.

“Undoubtedly we lost a few things, but the collections are housed to protect them to the extent possible,” said Kevin Gover, the Pawnee director of the NMAI. “The staff did a great job of protecting the collections and assessing the damage. I know they’ll do great in restoring things that were damaged.”

In terms of the building itself, which opened to great fanfare in 2004, officials said that there were some plaster cracks, but nothing serious. At the museum’s Cultural Resource Center building, there was more structural damage, but it appears that the collection housed there was unharmed. The nearby Smithsonian Castle also experienced structural damage by way of cracks and broken glass. Other Smithsonian buildings with Indian artifacts inside were also being inspected for possible damage.

The NMAI opened to the public as usual on August 24, while some nearby federal buildings were still closed for inspections. The headquarters of the Department of the Interior, which includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was one of those closed.

The earthquake was the most powerful one to rock the region in the modern era. Its effects were felt across the East Coast from the Carolinas to Canada, and into the Midwest as far as Chicago.

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Gover recalled that when the quake hit several of his staffers and himself were meeting in the board room on the fifth floor of the main NMAI building, located near the Capitol Building on the National Mall.

“The first two shakes were small,” Gover said. “My first thought was not ‘earthquake,’ it was ‘explosion.’ The third shake was larger, and a large ceramic jar was rocking in its vitrine. We knew then it was an earthquake.”

The museum quickly evacuated visitors and staff, with NMAI staff and security officers leading the effort.

“I knew there wasn't much if any damage at the museum, but was concerned about the staff at the Cultural Resources Center,” Gover said. “We heard from them in short order and learned that no one was hurt, and there did not seem to be any major damage to the collections.”

The nearby Washington Monument, meanwhile, suffered minor cracks. And the National Cathedral was damaged with three of its spires on its central tower cracking and falling to the roof below.

The Embassy of Tribal Nations, located near Dupont Circle, did not suffer any immediate damages. Opened in 2009, the headquarters of the National Congress of American Indians fared well in the incident, officials there said.

“Just before the earthquake occurred, NCAI had concluded a productive all-staff meeting in preparation for the 68th Annual Convention & Marketplace being held in late October/early November in Portland, Oregon,” said Thom Wallace, a spokesman for the organization. “There were a number of references to ground breaking sessions being planned, but we were surprised to experience a true earth shaking event in D.C.”