National Museum of American History Reopens

On Wednesday morning, Traveler staffers Jeannette Kimmel and Janelle Nanos got a sneak peek at the newly renovated National Museum of American History, which opens to the public this Friday, November 21st. The two-year, $85 million project has breathed new life into the formerly staid building. The most dramatic elements are the sweeping, light-filled atrium that now stretches through the building’s spine, and the original Star Spangled Banner, which is elegantly preserved behind a floor-to-ceiling glass wall and illuminated with relatively low light levels – evoking the “dawn’s early light.”

A cast of luminaries – including President Bush and the First Lady – turned out for yesterday’s event. The President spoke for several minutes, calling the museum “one of our nation’s greatest centers of knowledge,” and saying that the “items on display here are as diverse as our nation.” Laura Bush, he noted, was also integral in coordinating the current special exhibit at the museum, a handwritten copy of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address that is typically kept in the Lincoln bedroom at the White House. Lincoln’s words, said President Bush, which were spoken 145 years ago yesterday, “are written on the heart of every American.”

As if to prove the point further, right after the President spoke, five people took to the stage to participate in a naturalization ceremony, tugging at our collective patriotic heartstrings.

“No city in America pays homage to its history more than this our capital city,” said author and historian David McCullough, following the ceremony. “Washington D.C. insists we remember, it beckons us all to look and learn. And nowhere is this stronger than in the National Museum of American History’s walls. There are no facsimiles here. At a time when so much around us is synthetic and artificial, here is the real thing. How can we love our country if we take no interest in its story?”

Calling the museum a “talisman,” McCullough suggested that these “real things” have the power to share a multitude of stories. “Our stories,” he said.

After watching the speeches, our private tour began. More photos and videos after the jump.

The National Museum of American History’s multi-million renovation has certainly paid off. Just walking through the museum, you no longer feel as if you’re trapped in a dark, dingy tunnel. From the Constitution Avenue entrance, guests are welcome by a grand glass staircase and, above, a five-story skylight that highlights the main atrium. The museum now has 275 linear feet of artifact-display walls, which showcase over 4,000 objects around the building, meaning that artifacts aren’t simply confined to exhibit rooms.

Aside from other new architectural additions (new eateries, gift shops, elevators, bathrooms, etc.), the museum also has many new exhibits, including Robots on the Road, Stories on Money (Summer 2009), Producing for the American Table, and the Lemelson Hall of Invention and the Spark!Lab, two kid-friendly, hands-on spaces. The Gettysburg Address – penned by the great Abe himself – is located on the second floor behind the Greensboro Lunch Counter and will be at the NMAH until January 4, 2009.

The Star-Spangled Banner Gallery is by far the highlight of the new museum, located just off the new atrium on the second floor (the Mall entrance). Upon entering the gallery, visitors pass a smaller exhibit highlighting the Battle of Baltimore in 1812. Don’t march straight for the flag, however, or you’ll miss the opportunity to touch (yes touch!) some artifacts from the era.

The Star-Spangled Banner itself is encased in a room surrounded by a 35-foot floor-to-ceiling glass wall. The room has a separate environmental system (from the temperature of the room, to a fire prevention system, to the table it lays on at a 10 degree angle) which is designed to protect the almost 200-year-old flag. Don’t miss the interactive projection of the flag (pictured in video), which details specific aspects of the flag’s history.

Of course, the museum’s most popular collections are still there. From Julia Child’s kitchen, to the gallery of the American Presidency (the presidential timeline even includes the nation’s newest president-elect), to the Dolls House, and the Hall of Musical Instruments (with original Stradivarius). The collection of First Lady gowns was not on display when we visited, but museum staff assured us the gowns would be back soon.

Also of note: the renovations are delightfully green. The building’s newly installed heating and cooling systems and lighting fixtures will save the museum $1.6 million annually, and the updated dining rooms will feature menus with locally grown food, which you can eat while sitting at tables and chairs made from recycled materials.

If you can, try to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony tomorrow, November 21, from 8:30 to 10 a.m. The Grand Reopening Festival will continue through Sunday, November 23.

Photos: Top image, courtesy of the National Museum of American History. Slideshow, Janelle Nanos and Jeannette Kimmel. Video, Janelle Nanos