Museum Is Going Dark to Add Light

Bayley McInerney, 9, of Charlotte, N.C., counts the stripes on a model of the Star-Spangled Banner, which will get a new gallery.
Bayley McInerney, 9, of Charlotte, N.C., counts the stripes on a model of the Star-Spangled Banner, which will get a new gallery. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 13, 2006

The National Museum of American History will close for almost two years to reconfigure the core of its often-mystifying layout and build a new gallery for the Star-Spangled Banner.

The 42-year-old museum, the largest history museum in the country and the third-most-visited branch of the Smithsonian, will close Sept. 5, the day after Labor Day, officials announced yesterday. Construction is expected to be completed by summer 2008.

The museum is home to some of the country's iconic symbols, such as the desk on which Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and the top hat Abraham Lincoln was wearing the night of his assassination, as well as cultural curiosities such as the ruby slippers Judy Garland wore as Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz" and the home kitchen of famed chef Julia Child.

After four decades of sending visitors through a maze of hallways and galleries, the museum is planning to redo the core of the building, adding 10-foot-high "artifact walls" on the first and second floors -- glass cases that will display hundreds of items from the museum's vast collections. The center of the 750,000-square-foot building will have an atrium with a new skylight and a glass staircase that will allow visitors at the entrance from the Mall to see all the way through the building to the entrance on Constitution Avenue.

"This is the beginning of our architectural transformation of the building," said Brent D. Glass, the museum's director. He said the decision to close the museum was made reluctantly after it became clear that doing so was the quickest, safest and most cost-effective way to do the work. American History had 3 million visitors in 2005.

The centerpiece of the $85 million renovation will be a dramatic enclosure for the Stars and Stripes that flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor during the British bombardment in 1814. The flag inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that would become the national anthem.

The Smithsonian has had the flag since 1907. Over the past eight years, the banner has undergone thorough repairs. The Smithsonian announced yesterday that the work is complete.

Its new home will be a theatrical setting -- dimmed to evoke the "dawn's early light," with Key's words on a screen behind it. The flag will lie on a platform tilted 10 degrees from the horizontal. It can no longer be hung vertically because of the stress on the wool and cotton fibers. The gallery will be behind a soaring 19-foot sculpture of a flag. Panels at the entrance and exit of the enclosure will tell the history of the flag and the story of the painstaking conservation project.

The announcement of the new plan for the building comes four years after a blue-ribbon commission issued a report sharply critical of the museum's layout and organization.

The report said the museum didn't "meet any obvious test of comprehensibility or coherence," adding that even its employees got lost in the building. It suggested old-fashioned timelines, directories of the events of American history and a more coherent narrative.

"We have the good fortune of having almost all of our ideas implemented," said Richard Darman, who chaired the commission and now heads the museum's board. The panel was most concerned that the museum was claustrophobic, uninspired and cluttered. "Now it has opened up the lines of sight horizontally and brought in light vertically," Darman said.

In recent years, the history museum has corrected some of its most serious flaws in design and organization. It redid the halls on military history and transportation. It organized an exhibit on the American presidents.

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