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Airier, Better-Organized American History Museum to Reopen

The Star-Spangled Banner's history unfurls in a new gallery with lighting intended to preserve the flag's fabric.
The Star-Spangled Banner's history unfurls in a new gallery with lighting intended to preserve the flag's fabric. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 20, 2008

The National Museum of American History -- home to a broad mix of historical and pop-culture treasures from the Star-Spangled Banner to Julia Child's kitchen -- reopens tomorrow after an $85 million overhaul.

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Six years ago, a blue-ribbon commission appointed by the museum faulted the facility for being incoherent and disorganized, and "lacking aesthetic appeal" and balance. It was portrayed as a mess, even though at its peak, more than 5 million people a year found their way through its cluttered hallways. It's the third-most-visited museum on the Mall.

A vigorous rethinking of how to tell the American story and display a selection of its more than 3 million objects, as well as renovation of the physical structure, required the museum to close for two years. The central part of the building was dramatically altered; other areas are scheduled to be redone by 2014, in time for the museum's 50th anniversary, according to Director Brent D. Glass.

Smithsonian officials wanted the retooled facility to be encyclopedic but also to connect with every visitor. Glass, director since 2002, called it a "transformation project."

The results? It's lighter: There's a dramatic influx of openness and natural light -- the result of cutting through five floors to create an atrium topped by a skylight -- in a space nearly everyone agreed was claustrophobic. And it's darker: The fragile Star-Spangled Banner has been moved from the main entrance off the Mall to its own dimly lighted gallery with new panels telling the history of the flag, which flew in 1814 above Fort McHenry in Baltimore and was the inspiration for Francis Scott Key's poem that became the national anthem.

Some of the most obvious changes to the museum include a rotation of 1,000 American songs playing at the Mall

entrance, new "artifact walls" with nearly 500 objects total, a gallery just for documents, a welcome center, two new gift shops and two redesigned cafes.

Other changes to look for: President-elect Barack Obama's picture in the Presidential Gallery, additions to the "Price of Freedom" exhibit featuring military uniforms and information from Afghanistan and Iraq, a new hands-on lab for children, plus innovative robots in the "Science in American Life" exhibit.

Now the main themes and presentations have landmark artifacts outside the subject galleries. For example, the Vassar telescope, a large 1865 American-made refracting telescope used by Maria Mitchell, the country's first female astronomer, introduces the science and innovation wing. "We wanted them to be symbolic of a certain theme of American history and orient the visitors," Glass explained.

On the third floor, the Greensboro lunch counter, from the site of 1960s student sit-ins, has been given a prominent place. It introduces subjects on American ideals and social history. Adjacent to that corridor is a gallery that will preview what the National Museum of African American History and Culture will explore.

In the wing opposite the lunch counter is the venerable George Washington statue, a feature of the Smithsonian Institution since 1908. "The statue reflects political leadership and the lunch counter reflects reform, saying we are not satisfied with the status quo," Glass said.

The popular showcase of first ladies' gowns is not ready for tomorrow's opening. It will return next month to a space on the second floor, and, after the second phase of the renovation, will have a permanent place near the exhibit on the presidency. Meanwhile, Dorothy's ruby slippers from the "The Wizard of Oz" are in a new case.


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