WASHINGTON – Drilling echoes through the new open hall and the guts of the building are still exposed,but the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History is set to reopen Nov. 21 after being closed for more than two years.
A five-story,sky-lit atrium and a Star-Spangled Banner gallery will bring new life to the building that was once dark and disorienting. The museum closed in September 2006 for an $85 million renovation after a blue-ribbon report said it lacked aesthetic appeal and organizational coherence.
Brent Glass,director of the museum,led reporters on a hard-hat tour through the remodeled areas Wednesday.
Visitors will start their tours in the central atrium,walled with displays for more than 400 museum pieces. A 40-by-19 foot abstract flag that appears to be waving will be bolted to the north wall and will mark the entrance of the flag gallery.
Sightseers will make their way through a small hallway telling the story of the flag and how it inspired Francis Scott Key to write the national anthem. Animated fire,crackling sounds,a piece of charred timber from the White House and the story of the battle of Fort McHenry in Baltimore are all part of the experience.
The entrance is meant to provide historical context but also helps visitors adjust to the dim light needed to protect the already tattered,30-by-34 foot flag and evoke the “dawn's early light” Key described the morning after the battle.
“It will hopefully be something no one notices,but it's a delicate process,” said Gary Haney,design partner of Skidmore,Owings and Merrill LLP,which headed the renovation design.
The flag will rest at 10 degrees from the horizontal on a perforated platform that it will completely cover,giving the impression that it's floating. The flag will be visible through large glass panels,but it will be encased in a chamber with no electronics and low oxygen levels to prevent fire or other damage. Museum staff can lower the platform to be flat using hand cranks and then inspect it from above using a gantry,or movable bridge.
“The flag gallery is awesome,” Glass said. “It is nothing less than an artistic and engineering triumph.”
The flag restoration and its new gallery cost almost $30 million. The high-tech gallery,Glass said,will be a must-see in Washington and should protect the flag for another 100 years.
Also on display will be one of the five copies of the Gettysburg address that President Lincoln penned himself. First lady Laura Bush is lending it to the museum to coincide with the Nov. 19 anniversary of the famous speech. The document is normally displayed in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House,out of the public's view,and will be at the museum until Jan. 4.
More than 150 of the museum's most popular items,including the Ruby Slippers from the “Wizard of Oz,” the hat President Lincoln wore when he was shot and Kermit the Frog,were moved during the renovation to the National Air and Space Museum in an exhibit called Treasures of American History. The exhibit closed April 13 to give museum workers time to move the objects back to the National Museum of American History in time for the reopening.
Museum spokeswoman Valeska Hilbig said the popular first ladies' gowns exhibit may not be ready when the museum opens.
The museum's renovation,paid for with $46 million in federal funds and $39 million in private donations,is about 80 percent finished,Glass said. The discovery of asbestos and lead paint in the 1964 building pushed the reopening back from summer into fall.
Museum staff is working alongside construction teams to ready the museum for November in what Glass called the “sprint to the finish.” Some galleries,including the Price of Freedom,which depicts U.S. military history are filling with displays are close to being finished.