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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)

A welcome center will be added near the entrance from the Mall. Officials said it will provide detailed information about the museum's holdings and a snapshot of American history. The museum has already incorporated timelines into its exhibitions on the American presidency and the military.

A more detailed introductory exhibition will be part of a future redesign, Glass said. The museum will also rework the exhibits on presidents and first ladies and create a display on sports and entertainment. None of these projects will require a shutdown, he said.

The blueprints for the overhaul come from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which designed the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the National Gallery's Sculpture Garden. The design adds balconies to the third floor, creates an exhibition gallery for the museum's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation and gives the Carmichael Auditorium, off Constitution Avenue, an independent lobby.

"You will be able to identify the purpose of the museum as you walk through the door," said Gary Haney, a partner in the firm.

Money for the renovation is coming from public and private sources. The federal government is contributing $45 million. The museum will use $16 million of an $80 million gift from California businessman Kenneth E. Behring. Sheila Burke, the museum's deputy secretary and chief operating officer, said the Smithsonian needs to raise about $25 million from private sources to met expenses.

The Smithsonian has experienced long delays with other projects. The overhaul of the Old Patent Office Building -- which houses the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery -- was supposed to take three years. It's taken six, and reopens July 1. Burke said there are incentives in the contract for the American History Museum work to get it finished on time.

The museum's signature holding is the Star-Spangled Banner. The repair of the heavy flag was expected to take three years but required eight. The curators removed the linen backing, put in place in 1914 with 1.7 million stitches, and mended 165 areas of the flag. They removed dirt with cosmetic sponges and an acetone-water mixture. The work was done behind a glass wall in the museum. Officials calculated that more than 12 million people have looked on as the flag was being restored. "It already was in fragile condition. That can't be undone," said Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss, the project's chief conservator.

Closing the museum will disrupt some of the Smithsonian's retail operations. There are six stores in American History, all run by Smithsonian Business Ventures. Some of the stores' 25 permanent employees will be reassigned. Others will be dismissed.

Glass said the museum will probably organize mini-shows around the Mall to showcase some of its materials during the shutdown.

He emphasized that even though the museum will be closed, it will continue to collect objects, do research and provide educational outreach to teachers and students. "We will continue all the work of the museum except public access," he said.


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