National Museum of American History Reopens Nov. 21
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is set to reopen its doors to the public Friday, Nov. 21, providing a new look at the almost 200-year-old Star-Spangled Banner and a rare chance to see the White House copy of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The museum is reopening after a two-year, $85 million renovation of the building’s core, dramatically transforming the museum’s architectural appeal and renewing the presentation of its extensive collections. The museum will unveil new exhibitions and programs throughout the reopening year.
“For people of all ages, a visit to the National Museum of American History can be a defining event—providing a deep and fundamental understanding of what it has meant to be an American,” said Brent D. Glass, director of the museum. “Millions of visitors will enjoy new opportunities to explore the American narrative and the core stories of our national experience in an inspiring and memorable setting.”
President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush dedicated the Star-Spangled Banner Gallery during a special dedication today. Historian and museum board member David McCullough gave the keynote address, speaking about the importance of history. Judy Woodruff of PBS and a museum board member, served as the master of ceremonies. Other speakers included Roger Farah, president and chief operating officer of Polo Ralph Lauren, which generously funded a large portion of the Star-Spangled Banner project; Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough; and museum director Glass, who presided. Jonathan Scharfen, the acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, performed a special naturalization ceremony for five new U.S. citizens. The national anthem and other patriotic music were performed by the Military District of Washington and Voices of Liberty, an a capella group from the Walt Disney World Resort.
On Nov. 21, a procession of historical characters together with Clough and Glass will welcome visitors back to the museum with a special ribbon-cutting ceremony. General Colin L. Powell, USA (Ret) will read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a copy of which is on temporary loan from the White House. Other speakers will include philanthropist Kenneth E. Behring and Kathy Brown of Verizon Communications Inc. Entertainment will include performances of American music by The Children’s Chorus of Washington and the Federal City Brass Band and the firing of an authentic cannon from the War of 1812. The reopening festival will continue through the weekend with special activities, music and giveaways.
Renovation of the Center Core
Visitors enter a dramatic five-story skylit atrium, surrounded by artifact displays filled with nearly 500 objects showcasing the breadth and depth of the museum’s 3 million objects representing the cultural, social, technological and political history of the United States. An architectural representation of a waving flag frames the entrance to the Star-Spangled Banner Gallery. The gallery itself is a climate-controlled state-of-the-art chamber designed to evoke the “dawn’s early light.”
The renovation project focused on three areas: architectural enhancements to the center core, including a grand staircase and skylight; construction of the new Star-Spangled Banner Gallery; and updates to the 44-year-old building’s infrastructure. The architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP of New York designed the project, and Turner Construction Company was responsible for the overall construction. New York design firms Chermayeff & Geismar and C&G Partners worked with SOM on the Star-Spangled Banner Gallery. The Nina and Ivan Selin Welcome Center on the second floor will help orient visitors as will six landmark objects located in the wings of each of the three exhibit floors. For example, the Vassar College telescope, circa 1865 and used by the first American female astronomer, will be on the west wing of the first floor, representing science and technology. In addition, that wing includes the Lemelson Hall of Invention and Spark!Lab, a hands-on science and invention center.
The renovation also includes the Samuel J. and Ethel LeFrak Lobby for the 275-seat Carmichael Auditorium, new elevators and restroom facilities and food and retail operations. The Constitution Cafe will face Constitution Avenue on the first floor and offer sandwiches, soups, salads and desserts, while the lower-level 600-seat Stars and Stripes Cafe will serve American fare.
The Star-Spangled Banner
The Star-Spangled Banner returns to the heart of the museum in a dramatic new display that provides a contemplative setting for visitors. A 40-foot by 19-foot abstract representation of the flag—960 reflective tiles made of polycarborate material—soars above the entrance and is the focal point of the second floor. The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation generously provided $2.5 million for its construction.
A special enclosure, fronted by a 35-foot floor-to-ceiling glass wall, protects the fragile wool and cotton flag while providing maximum visibility to visitors. The 30-foot by 34-foot banner is displayed at a horizontal orientation and, in order to reduce stress to the textile, at a 10-degree angle of elevation. Low light levels protect the flag, yet are dramatic enough to evoke an atmosphere of the “dawn’s early light.” The room has separate environmental systems maintaining a temperature of 68 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit and relative humidity of 50 percent.
The Star-Spangled Banner Preservation Project is made possible by major support from Polo Ralph Lauren. Generous support is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Congress, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the American Express Historic Preservation Fund. The project is part of Save America’s Treasures—a public-private partnership administered by the National Park Service and the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
The Gettysburg Address
Lincoln’s short address at the Gettysburg, Pa., cemetery Nov. 19, 1863, became one of the most eloquent speeches in American history. The manuscript that is on view in the museum’s new Albert H. Small Documents Gallery is one of five drafts, the last known to have been written in Lincoln’s hand. Penned in March 1864 for an anthology to raise funds for the Union, it was kept by one of the book’s publishers, Alexander Bliss, and was auctioned in 1949. Oscar Cintas, a former Cuban ambassador to the United States, purchased it and on his death in 1957, he asked that it be placed in the White House collection. The manuscript has been displayed in the Lincoln bedroom, which is not open for public tours. Mrs. Laura Bush approved the loan of this copy of the Gettysburg Address to the museum for display from Nov. 21 through Jan. 4, 2009.
Costs and Funding
The $85 million renovation is made possible through a public-private partnership with $46 million in federal funds and the remaining $39 million from individuals, foundations and corporations. The museum’s $80 million donation donor, Kenneth E. Behring, has contributed $16 million to the project.
Reopening Year Highlights
Opening in December, “First Ladies at the Smithsonian” will showcase premier objects from the nearly century-old collection, including 14 dresses ranging from the time of Martha Washington to Laura Bush.
As part of the Smithsonian-wide celebration of the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, the museum will bring together—for the first time—its unique and unparalleled Lincoln collection. “Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life” will open Jan. 16, 2009.
“The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise” will be on display in the special preview gallery for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Beginning Jan. 30, 2009, this exhibition features more than 100 images created by one of the premier African American studios in the country and one of the longest-running black businesses in Washington.
Another highlight will be the 8,000-square-foot exhibition, “On the Water: Stories from Maritime America,” which opens in spring 2009. A new permanent exhibition, designed to engage the public in a dynamic exploration of American maritime history, it will build on the Smithsonian’s unparalleled collections of ship and patent models, documents and images to bring the sights, sounds and stories from the oceans, inland rivers and coastal communities to the museum’s visitors.
The museum’s Web site and blog at americanhistory.si.edu reaches more than 16 million virtual visitors who can explore online exhibitions, collections and find special program listings. The public may also subscribe to a monthly electronic newsletter.
The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. Documenting the American experience from the Colonial times to the present, the museum looks at growth and change in the United States. The museum is located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., beginning Nov. 21. To learn more about the museum, visit americanhistory.si.edu. For general Smithsonian information, call (202) 633-1000; (202) 633-5285 (TTY).
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