Reopening, in All Its Old Glory

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History will open its doors this morning for the first time in more than two years.

Back will be Old Glory, Thomas Edison's light bulb and Dorothy's ruby red slippers. Also back, particularly this weekend, will be the crowds.

Don't say we didn't warn you.

Having said that, there's no doubt that the centerpiece of the renovated museum -- the American flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write his famous poem -- has never looked more magnificent. It's inspiring as it sits behind a 35-foot glass wall in a theaterlike space, dimly lit to recall "dawn's early light." Key's words are simply displayed above the 30-by-34-foot flag.

This space, in contrast to the old one, is meant to be calming and quiet.

It's also relatively small, especially the area available to stand in front of the flag. The museum has no plans to issue tickets to manage the crowds passing through the Star-Spangled Gallery. (Helpful hint: According to a museum representative, Thanksgiving Day is less crowded, as are the days leading up to Christmas.)

There's much to like about the new old museum. The entrance is spacious, open and bright, with a skylight and balconies surrounding the atrium. You may have a hard time remembering what the old museum looked like. An abstract flag made of a silver reflective material greets visitors on the far wall as they walk in. Behind that is the Star-Spangled Banner.

Many of the museum's favorites are back: Kermit the Frog, Julia Child's kitchen. Some are not: the Foucault Pendulum, demonstrating the rotation of the Earth. The space where it was is marked by a gray circle.

If you visit the museum this weekend, there will be plenty of special events:

· Historical images will be projected onto the museum facade tonight and Saturday from 5 to 10.

· Help a Fort McHenry honor guard fold an American flag correctly Saturday at noon and 3 p.m. on the terrace, weather permitting.

· Invent something at SparkLab, a hands-on center for kids of all ages, Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the first floor of the west wing.· At carts throughout the museum, wear a corset, use a cotton gin or try other activities Americans would have done in the past Saturday and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

· Learn what it was like to be part of the civil rights movement at a 20-minute talk led by an actor portraying 1960s activist Samuel Leonard on Saturday and Sunday at 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. at the Greensboro lunch counter on the second floor of the east wing.

· Take a 15-minute tour of your favorite exhibit led by a docent Saturday and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

· Check out live music: jazz on the first floor today at noon, 2:30 p.m., 4 p.m. and 5 p.m.; Saturday at noon, 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m.; and Sunday at noon and 3 p.m. On Saturday only, there will be performances of 18th-century music at 10:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Main Stage 1; bluegrass at 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. on Acoustic Stage 3; and Dixieland music at 12:30 p.m., 2 p.m. at 4:30 p.m. on Acoustic Stage 3.

· Meet Mary Pickersgill, the star-spangled banner seamstress, and learn about the flag from a reenactor Saturday and Sunday from 12:30 to 12:50 p.m. and 3:30 to 3:50 p.m. in the second-floor Flag Hall.

· Listen to President George Washington (you know what we mean) and ask him questions Saturday at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. in the second-floor Flag Hall.

-- Moira E. McLaughlin

Where is it? 14th Street and Constitution Avenue (Metro: Federal Triangle, Smithsonian). Today the museum will be open until 7:30. Otherwise, the museum is open daily except Christmas from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

How much? Free.

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