National Museum of American History Will Open Nov. 21
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National Museum of American History Will Open Nov. 21

WASHINGTON.- The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will open its doors to the public Friday, Nov. 21, providing a new look at the almost 200-year-old Star-Spangled Banner and a rare chance to see the White House copy of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The reopening will mark the completion of a two-year, $85 million renovation of the building’s center core, dramatically transforming the museum’s architectural appeal while reorganizing and renewing the presentation of its extensive collections.

Visitors will enter a dramatic five-story sky-lit atrium, surrounded by artifact displays filled with more than 400 objects showcasing the breadth and depth of the museum’s three million objects representing the cultural, social, technological and political history of the United States. An architectural representation of a waving flag—960 reflective tiles made of polycarbonate material—frames the entrance to the Star-Spangled Banner gallery. The gallery itself is a climate-controlled state-of-the-art chamber designed to evoke the “dawn’s early light.” An exhibition that includes multimedia displays and historic objects will tell the story of the flag and the National Anthem.

“For people of all ages, a visit to the National Museum of American History can be a defining event—providing a deep and fundamental understanding of what it has meant to be an American,” said Brent D. Glass, director of the museum. “Millions of visitors will enjoy new opportunities to explore the American narrative and the core stories of our national experience in an inspiring and memorable setting.”

The renovation project focused on three areas: architectural enhancements to the center core, including a grand staircase and a skylight; construction of a new Star-Spangled Banner gallery and updates to the 44-year-old building’s infrastructure. Architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP of New York designed the project and Turner Construction Company is responsible for the overall construction. New York design firms Chermayeff & Geismar Studio and C&G Partners are working with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill on the new gallery for the Star-Spangled Banner.

The Star-Spangled Banner
The Star-Spangled Banner will return to the heart of the museum in a dramatic new display that provides a contemplative setting for visitors. A 40 by 19 foot abstract representation of the flag will soar above the entrance and will be a focal point of the second floor. The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation generously provided $2.5 million for its construction.

A special enclosure, fronted by a 45-foot-long floor-to-ceiling glass wall, will protect the fragile wool and cotton flag while providing maximum visibility to visitors. The chamber’s lighting, mechanical, security and fire prevention systems, as well as the table upon which the flag rests and the new gantry (movable bridge) that museum staff will use to inspect the flag, are designed to work together to ensure the long-term care of the flag. All support structures and mechanisms will be hidden from public view and the flag will appear to be floating.

The 30-by-34-foot banner will be displayed at a horizontal orientation according to U.S. flag code and, in order to reduce stress to the textile, at a 10-degree angle of elevation. Low light levels will protect the flag yet are dramatic enough to evoke an atmosphere of the “dawn’s early light,” similar to what Francis Scott Key experienced on Sept. 14, 1814, when he penned his poem that became the national anthem in 1931. The room has separate environmental systems maintaining a constant temperature of 68 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit and relative humidity of 50 percent.

The first stanza of Key’s poem will be projected prominently on the wall above and behind the Star-Spangled Banner. An interactive image of the flag will provide additional information.

The Star-Spangled Banner Preservation Project is made possible by major support from Polo Ralph Lauren. Generous support is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts, the U.S. Congress, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the American Express Historic Preservation Fund. The conservation project is part of Save America’s Treasures, a public–private project of the White House Millennium Council and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The History Channel, a donor through financial contributions and in-kind gifts, will release a new one-hour special touching on the flag’s colorful history, including the specialized conservation treatment undertaken by the museum and the new high-tech flag chamber. A part of the channel’s “Save Our History” series, the documentary will air in November.

The Gettysburg Address
Lincoln’s short address at the Gettysburg, Pa., cemetery Nov. 19, 1863, became one of the most eloquent speeches in American history. The manuscript that will be on view in the museum’s new Albert H. Small Documents Gallery is one of five drafts, the last known to have been written in Lincoln’s hand. Penned in March 1864 for an anthology to raise funds for the Union, it was kept by one of the book’s publishers, Alexander Bliss, and was auctioned in 1949. Oscar Cintas, a former Cuban ambassador, purchased it and on his death in 1957, he asked that it be placed in the White House collection. There, the document is displayed in the Lincoln Bedroom, in the private quarters not open for public tours. Mrs. Laura Bush approved the loan of this copy of the Gettysburg Address to the museum for display from November 21 to January 4, 2009.

The renovation is made possible through a public-private partnership with $46 million in federal funds and the remaining $39 million from individuals, foundations and corporations. The museum’s $80 million dollar donor, Kenneth E. Behring, has contributed $16 million to the project.

The Nina and Ivan Selin Welcome Center on the second floor will help orient visitors as will six landmark objects located in the wings of each of the three exhibit floors. For example, the Vassar College telescope, circa 1865, and used by the first American female astronomer, will be on the west wing of the first floor, representing science and technology. That wing includes the Lemelson Hall of Invention and Spark!Lab, a hands-on science and invention center.

The renovation also includes the Samuel J. and Ethel LeFrak Lobby for the 275-seat Carmichael Auditorium, new elevators and restroom facilities, food and retail operations. The Constitution Café will face Constitution Avenue on the first floor and offer sandwiches, soups, salads and desserts while the lower level 600-seat Stars and Stripes Café will serve American fare.

Throughout its reopening year, the museum will present new exhibits and programs with one highlight being the 8,000-square-foot exhibition, “On the Water: Stories from Maritime America” which opens in spring 2009. The Susan and Elihu Rose Gallery, also opening in 2009, will feature changing exhibitions. Programming will take center stage with visitors able to encounter historic characters every weekend and on federal holidays as well as tours, theater and popular song programs. A list of 2008-2009 exhibitions and programs will be available in October.

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