Revamped Museum Welcomes Guests

Posted November 19, 2008 at 5:34pm

After two years away from home, Dorothy’s ruby-red slippers have finally been returned to their home at the newly opened Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

On Wednesday, the museum celebrated the end of its two-year closure and extensive renovations with a dedication ceremony attended by board members, donors, media and a few special guests.

Famed pieces of American history such as the ruby slippers, Julia Child’s kitchen and 40 feet of the original 1932 pavement from Route 66 were on display throughout the museum.

“Welcome back to your National Museum of American History,” Museum Director Brent Glass said proudly during the dedication ceremony.

The museum closed in September 2006 for an $85 million renovation to its interior, at which time many pieces of the collection were put into storage. The museum was originally slated to open this summer, but the discovery of asbestos and lead paint slowed the process.

Several guests were on hand to witness the event, including historian and author David McCullough, President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush.

“I would urge all of our citizens to come to Washington, D.C., to this wonderful place of learning,” Bush told the crowd. “The [objects] on display here are as diverse as our nation.”

The museum will open to the public on Friday, at which time retired Gen. Colin Powell will read the Gettysburg Address.

The marquee attraction is the new Star-Spangled Banner Gallery, which houses the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the national anthem.

The gallery cost about $30 million and tells the tale of the Battle of Baltimore and the significance of the War of 1812.

It also features an abstract flag comprising 960 tiles hanging above the entranceway. Visitors are able to read the story of the anthem’s composition and then view the tattered flag in lighting similar to what inspired Key.

“‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ has become synonymous with the museum,” Glass told the media in July. “What I’m very pleased about is for the first time we will be able to provide a permanent historical context for the flag.”

The refurbished museum features a center staircase and more open space in the center of the building, with an atrium where the famed Foucault pendulum once hung.

Glass describes the atrium as a “town square” where events such as naturalization ceremonies can be held, the first of which took place during the dedication.

Artifact cases have also been added along the walls of the first and second floors as a means of displaying more of the museum’s 3 million objects. One such case features a collection of mousetraps to show the progress of American technology.

On Tuesday night, the museum’s opening was feted with a black-tie gala that featured Abraham Lincoln and Julia Child impersonators roaming the halls. Such noteworthy Washingtonians as Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) attended.

While much of the interior of the museum has been gutted, the exterior of the 44-year-old building has changed only slightly. Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the project cost $85 million, $45.9 million of which came from federal funding.

The museum, the most popular of the Smithsonian’s with an average of 3 million visitors each year, will still be home to many of the same exhibits and artifacts, though there will be some new touches, such as the artifact cases and the objects in them.

“The mission of this museum is to tell the story of America,” Glass said. “We want visitors to come away with a better understanding of the American dream and what it means to be an American.”