American History To Reopen In November

The Star-Spangled Banner will have a new display when the American History Museum reopens in November.
The Star-Spangled Banner will have a new display when the American History Museum reopens in November. (By Jef Tinsley -- National Museum Of American History)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 10, 2008

The National Museum of American History, closed for an extensive renovation since September 2006, will reopen in November, Smithsonian Acting Secretary Cristián Samper announced yesterday.

The opening was originally scheduled for this summer, then pushed back to this fall and finally, yesterday, to November.

"It did slide a few months from the original time," Samper said at a House appropriations hearing on President Bush's proposed 2009 budget for the Smithsonian. "Unfortunately, though this is one of our most recent museums, it is 40 years old. When we started going in there to open the central courtyard, we ran into asbestos and lead paint. That set us back by a few months. But we will open in November and it will be a great addition."

The redesign of the museum's interior includes a new display for the Star-Spangled Banner, a central atrium with a skylight, a grand staircase and 10-foot-high artifact walls. The public/private project cost $85 million.

Even with American History closed, Samper said the Smithsonian attracted 24.2 million visitors in 2007, an increase of 1 million over 2006. The visitor totals for the first three months of this year are up 500,000 over the same period last year.

Smithsonian officials also confirmed yesterday that they are planning a major exhibition on Abraham Lincoln, timed to coincide with nationwide commemorations in February 2009 of the 200th anniversary of his birth.

At the beginning of the hearing, Samper showed the Appropriations subcommittee on interior, environment and related agencies objects from the Smithsonian's collections, saying, "It is important to remember what the Smithsonian is all about."

One artifact was an 1830s iron wedge used in railroad construction. Lincoln had carved his initials in it after a blacksmith declined to do the job. The show at the American History Museum will most likely include the top hat Lincoln was wearing the night of his assassination, the brass inkwell used for the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, and a patent for a device for raising boats off sandbars.

Also discussed at yesterday's hearing was the Smithsonian's budget request. Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), the chairman of the subcommittee, called the president's request of $716 million in fiscal 2009 for all the Smithsonian's needs, an increase of $34 million, "reasonable."

Samper and Dicks agreed that the $69 million budgeted for facility repairs, an area of concern over the last decade, was fair, even though an outside study recently concluded that the Smithsonian needed to spend $96 million a year to catch up on a maintenance and repair backlog estimated at $1.5 billion.

But both men expressed concerns about proposed reductions in programming money.

"The reduction in our public programs . . . puts many programs at risk," Samper said. He mentioned the Natural History Museum's Insect Zoo, run by the education division, traveling exhibitions and guided tours as examples. He said it would be difficult to replace the money in the short term, but added the Smithsonian would look for private funding or work with Congress for loans from other parts of its budget.

"There is no point in having beautiful buildings if it is going to be hollow inside," Samper said.

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