Museum Is Going Dark to Add Light
American History's 'Architectural Transformation' May Take Two Years

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.

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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