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American history museum undergoes physical, intellectual overhaul

By Bret Zongker
Washington, D.C. (AP) 12-07

Inspired by the American flag flying after the 1814 British attack on Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key wrote “O! say can you see” and penned the words that would become the national anthem.

But at America’s most popular history museum, the presentation of the famous flag – the Star-Spangled Banner – hasn’t exactly taken the breath away. For decades, it hung in a darkened, enclosed room near the entrance of the National Museum of American History, covered by a screen that opened for a few minutes every hour. Some tourists simply walked by the exhibit – failing to notice the banner that helped shape the young country’s identity, museum director Brent Glass said.

Museum officials are promising a much larger, more dramatic flag exhibit when the history museum reopens next year after a $85 million renovation. Now midway through this massive project, the museum has been knocking down walls, removing clutter, rethinking history and planning overhauled exhibits, including the gloomy banner space.

“I think it’s the most comprehensive rethinking of the museum, clearly since we opened in 1964,” said Glass, who joined the Smithsonian five years ago after more than a decade of directing Pennsylvania’s state history program.

Many of the changes will address a 2002 blue-ribbon commission report that sharply criticized the museum for its mystifying layout and its less-than-inclusive presentation of history. The commission noted that the clutter, darkness and confined spaces made the museum’s nickname, “America’s attic,” a good fit.

It was “a glorious hodgepodge of things and themes,” said Richard Norton Smith, a prominent presidential historian and member of the commission. “To the nonspecialist who walked in the door, it was unnecessarily confusing.”

When the museum reopens, visitors will get an awe-inspiring view of the Star-Spangled Banner.

Workers have been slicing through five floors of the building to create a new skylight and atrium that will be the core of the new exhibition space. The flag gallery will be the centerpiece, and it will be protected from sunlight, with special lighting to depict “the dawn’s early light.”

The flag will rest on a specially designed aluminum and steel table, sealed in a glass case with reduced lighting and oxygen levels to prevent deterioration or fire. “It’s the largest exhibit case in the world,” Glass said. “For presenting a textile object of this size, I think this is a groundbreaking effort in conservation.”

Construction costs for the new gallery make up about $19 million of the total project.

Museum officials are also trying to do more to draw visitors to the 30-by-42-foot flag’s history. In the past, there had been little to engage visitors beyond a label at the banner’s base and the periodic playing of the anthem over nearby speakers. Now, the exhibit will be rich with details on the Battle of Baltimore and Francis Scott Key’s poem, which became the nation’s song. Another display will show the history of the flag’s ownership and preservation.

Glass said no music will play. But the first stanza of Key’s poem, beginning with “O! say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,” will be printed behind the flag.

“It will just be you and the flag and the national anthem,” he said.

Beyond the banner exhibit and other major architectural changes, planners are hoping to engage visitors by adding interactive displays, costumed interpreters and a more ethnically inclusive view of history in upcoming years. Visitors might be able to handle reproductions of historic objects, and use high-tech displays to discover links between the past and future. In the lobby and corridors, they might get a quick history lesson from Abraham Lincoln and other famous figures.

Officials are conscious of criticism that the museum did not properly reflect the country’s diversity and the impact of immigrants, American Indians and black people.

So the newest exhibits – including already refurbished galleries on transportation and military history – are “less about the machinery and more about the people who made them,” said James Gardner, the museum’s associate director for curatorial affairs.

A train engine exhibit was redone to include a black educator in the South who defied segregation as a passenger on the train and was forcibly removed from her seat by a group of white men in 1920. Another train exhibit talks about the movement of Asian farm workers to California to work in strawberry fields, he said.

Future displays will feature Latinos and other immigrant groups.

Smith, the blue-ribbon commission member and a scholar-in-residence at George Mason University in northern
Virginia, recommended that the history museum work with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, the future National Museum of African American History and Culture and perhaps the proposed National Museum of the American Latino in Washington.

What won’t disappear during the history museum’s overhaul are tourist favorites, such as the first ladies’ evening gowns exhibit and the “American Presidency.” But future phases of the museum’s overhaul will group these subjects together in a new gallery funded by part of the $80 million gift in 2000 from Kenneth E. Behring. The Behring funds also will support a new hall for the popular culture, sports and entertainment exhibits that hold such famous objects as Dorothy’s ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz” and Kermit the Frog.

Funding for the first phase of museum renovations – the Star-Spangled Banner gallery and central atrium – includes $45.9 million in federal funds and $39.1 million from individuals, foundations and corporations. Future construction phases will renovate galleries in the museum’s wings by 2014.

Funds also have been secured for three new galleries – on historic documents, maritime history and coins and currency. The galleries are expected to debut within the first year of the museum’s reopening.

In late 2006, Glass announced a $180 million capital campaign, and more than $150 million has already been secured. New gifts include $4.5 million from the A.P. Moller and Chastine Mc-Kinny Moller Foundation for the maritime history gallery and $2.5 million from the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation. The museum is still seeking funding for a gallery on economic history called “Innovation and Enterprise.”

The museum has not set a firm date for its reopening, but it had been slated to reopen in summer 2008.

On the Net:
National Museum of American History:
http://americanhistory.si.edu

 

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