WASHINGTON – Forty years after the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History opened its doors,the museum is revamping parts of the aging building and bringing together 250 years of warfare in a new exhibit.
“A lot of young people and adults don’t know the century in which the Civil War was fought,” said Brent D. Glass,museum director. “We need to tell not only bits and pieces,but a major synthesis.”
To do that,the museum began a three-phase $300 million renovation plan in January. For phase one,the Military History Hall is being revamped and a new permanent exhibition,”The Price of Freedom,” will open on Veteran’s Day,Nov. 11.
As part of these “public space renewal” renovations,lighting,acoustics and escalators will be improved. New restrooms will be built. A former corridor,museum store and exhibits will be transformed into a “circulation gathering area” and the new exhibit,Glass explained as he showed a visitor around the empty space.
These improvements will make the museum “more aesthetically pleasing and easier for people to navigate,” Glass said. Each phase is staggered so that the museum will remain open throughout renovations.
The exhibit will span 18,000 square feet of the museum’s third floor,making it the second-largest exhibit,said David K. Allison,exhibit project manager. Plans for the exhibit have been in the works for about three years,Glass said.
“There’s been a need to redo our military halls for a long time,” Allison said.
Glass added,”There was no comprehensive overview that was presented chronologically.”
On Tuesday,workers were building a platform for a Vietnam combat Huey helicopter – just one of the more than 850 original artifacts,graphic images and interactive stations,Allison said. Glass said the project is on schedule.
The exhibit will tell stories of how Americans have fought to establish the nation’s independence,determine its borders,shape its values and define its leading role in world affairs. It will also analyze the relationship between wars and American political leadership,social values,technological innovation and personal sacrifice.
As visitors enter the gallery,they will be transported to 1756,when American colonists were fighting alongside the British in the French and Indian War. By the end,visitors will be brought back to the present with selected objects from Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom,including Colin Powell’s uniform and a first-generation military robot,Allison said.
Powell,now secretary of state,was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Desert Storm.
“It’s not just uniforms and guns,” Allison said. “There’s a lot about the home front.”
In a display about the Medal of Honor,the nation’s highest military honor,visitors will hear medal recipients tell their own stories,Allison said. The last two medals were awarded to soldiers who died in Somalia trying to protect wounded comrades.
Highlights will also include George Washington's commission from Congress as commander in chief of the Continental Army,Andrew Jackson's uniform jacket from the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812,and a World War II radiogram alerting the Pacific Fleet: “Air Raid Pearl Harbor. This is no drill.”
“This has been a big challenge – trying to tell the whole story all in one place,” Allison said. “It will be reminiscent of what they learned in high school. But it’s never really been brought to life.”
Glass said that museum focus groups have shown that most people want to be shown the reality of war. “You’ll see controversies revisited,” he said.
In May 2002,a blue ribbon commission that advises the museum on themes and methods of presentation issued a report with seven key recommendations,and the renovations are being designed with those in mind,Glass said.
Phase two of the overall renovation centers on the Star-Spangled Banner and the central core of the museum,to be completed in 2006. The historic flag,now being repaired,will be returned to the central hall.
An introductory exhibit near the Mall entrance,tentatively called “America’s Stories” will provide chronology and context for visitors. The Mall entrance will be improved,and the first-floor Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation will be expanded.
The final phase will focus on upgrades to existing exhibitions,including the Maritime Hall,Information Age,First Ladies,The American Presidency,A More Perfect Union and the Gunboat Philadelphia. In addition,the museum hopes to present two new exhibitions about the nation’s cultural and economic history.
Nearly $200 million was raised from 1998 to 2003. The museum expects to launch an additional fund-raising campaign to last until 2007 to raise a minimum of $60 million from the private sector. The museum expects to receive about $50 million from the federal government.