Star-Spangled Reopening Set for Nov. 21

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 31, 2008

The National Museum of American History, closed for extensive renovations for almost two years, will reopen Nov. 21, officials announced yesterday.

The centerpiece is a special chamber for the Star-Spangled Banner, the actual flag that flew over Baltimore's Fort McHenry in 1814. It will be exhibited at a 10-degree angle behind a glass wall and appear to be floating. The lights will be low, giving the "dawn's early light" look that prompted Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became the national anthem. As visitors walk past the display, the story of the War of 1812, the burning of the White House, the battle at Fort McHenry and the preservation of the iconic symbol will be told in words and sounds. The display will include a charred timber from the White House, part of the museum's 3-million-item collection, and visitors will hear people and horses running.

This style of storytelling, said museum Director Brent D. Glass, will "shed new light on American history, by bringing light into the building and by establishing new ways of interpreting American history."

The redesign changes the core of the 44-year-old building, which will feature a central glass-and-stainless-steel staircase and a skylight. The renovation also includes updating the museum's electrical, plumbing, security and other mechanical systems. During construction, the workers found asbestos and lead paint, mainly in four elevator shafts. Removing those substances pushed the opening date from the summer to the fall. Glass explained that "we did a preconstruction survey and thought we had identified the locations. But as we got into the elevator shafts, we found more. It was mostly a time issue, and that is why the schedule slipped."

The reopening will be in time for the visitor rush during Thanksgiving. It will also be two days after the 145th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, which was delivered on Nov. 19, 1863. To help celebrate, the White House is lending the museum its copy of the address in Lincoln's handwriting. The document is rarely seen by the public and will be on view until Jan. 4.

Renovation work, Glass said as he led a hard-hat tour of the site, is 80 percent complete. The renovation covers 120,000 square feet of the museum's 300,000 feet of public space.

The work was done in part to satisfy the criticism of a 2002 blue ribbon commission that studied the facility. The commission found the layout to be confusing to tourists and sometimes to staff, and suggested that the museum needed clearer sightlines, improved lighting and better ways to tell the American story. Sunlight will flood a five-story central atrium. The project cost $85 million, with $45.9 million coming from the government and $39.1 million from private sources.

To show more of its collection, the museum has created artifact walls that will line the first and second floors of the building. The cases will have more than 400 objects, organized by theme. There will be cases devoted to Civil War printing, the development of cameras, children's toys and political memorabilia, among other topics.

On each of the three exhibit floors, historical objects will introduce the subjects of the permanent exhibitions. The Vassar College telescope, circa 1865, will announce the science and technology displays. Other markers will include the Red Cross ambulance once used by Clara Barton, the famed Civil War nurse, and the Greensboro, N.C., lunch counter that was the site of a landmark sit-in to end segregation in the 1960s.

Next year the museum will open an 8,000-square-foot exhibition titled "On the Water: Stories From Maritime America."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company