News & Politics

Back Inside the Nation’s Attic: National Museum of American History Reopens

After years of anticipation, the renovated National Museum of American History opens to the public.

The Smithsonian will open the doors to the newly renovated National Museum of American History on Friday at 8:30 AM with a ribbon cutting, musical performances, the firing of an 1812 cannon, and a reading of the Gettysburg Address by Colin Powell. After the ribbon cutting, a procession of historical characters will lead visitors into the building for the first public viewing since the museum’s closure in September 2006.

President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush dedicated the Star Spangled Banner Gallery Wednesday, as former President Lyndon Johnson and wife Lady Bird Johnson did in the original museum almost 45 years ago.

Bush described the museum’s opening as the beginning of an exciting new era. Though some of the exhibits were displayed in the previous building, the museum showcases many new ones. The additions and improvements will aid in the educational progress of citizens, according to the dedication’s keynote speaker, David McCullough. He said that many young Americans are “historically illiterate” and that the museum includes objects with a magical power. The power, he says, is the stories the artifacts tell, which will help spark an interest in history.There are many interactive opportunities around the museum, some aimed at children, and others to make anyone’s experience more hands-on. For example, touch screens are located throughout the museum so visitors can choose specific information they want to learn more about. Examples can be seen in the Star Spangled Banner room and the Gettysburg Address room.

The highlight of the transformed museum is definitely the Star Spangled Banner—the flag that flew at the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812 and inspired Francis Scott Key to write what became our national anthem. The 30-by-34-foot flag is displayed in the heart of the museum in an environmentally controlled chamber with low lighting to protect it. Standing before the flag in the dark room is breathtaking with the words to “The Star Spangled Banner” projected above the flag. Before exiting the room, make a stop at the interactive table that allows visitors to touch an image of the flag to learn more about its history.

As Bush said in his dedication, “ ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ is written on the hearts of every American” and should remind citizens of the times when the promise of freedom seemed uncertain. Bush explained that Abraham Lincoln realized that liberty was a gift given by the Almighty and that peace could not be purchased. Appropriately placed close to the flag and the floor’s most prominent object—the Greensboro, North Carolina, lunch counter that African-American college students refused to leave during the civil-rights movement—is a new addition to the museum: the Gettysburg Address.

The famous speech is on loan to the museum from the White House until January 4. The manuscript is one of five drafts handwritten by President Lincoln.

Like the touch table in the flag room, there’s an interactive opportunity with the Gettysburg Address. Visitors are invited to touch a screen where they can zoom in on portions of the speech and listen to actor Liam Neeson recite the famous words.

Other notable exhibits include the Spark!Lab hands-on space and Lemelson Hall of Invention, where children can work on experiments with museum staff, and the American Presidency exhibit, where you can recite a speech from a Teleprompter while positioned behind a presidential podium. Your likeness is then projected onto a screen and it looks as though you’re speaking before a crowd. Some choices include speeches by John F. Kennedy and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Throughout the year, the Smithsonian staff will continue to add exhibits and programs.

The $85-million renovation focused on architectural enhancements to the center of the building, including the addition of a skylight and grand staircase, updates to the building’s infrastructure, and the creation of the Star Spangled Banner Gallery. In addition to displaying historical artifacts, the museum staff hopes that the space will be used for events such as the naturalization ceremony of five new US citizens that took place during the dedication.

The museum’s opening ceremonies will take place on the Mall-side terrace (unless inclement weather moves the ceremony indoors). On opening day, the museum will stay open until 7 PM; normal hours (10 AM to 5:30 PM) will resume on Saturday. Admission is free.