It was sad to me, back in 2006, when the National Museum of American History (NMAH) closed its doors. My wife and I, when first we met, had a very delightful time wandering its halls when she had first come down from Pittsburgh. It’s a special place, for us. I knew that they were working to make it a brighter, more modern place, having not undergone significant renewal since its opening in 1964. It was due for a renovation. Tomorrow morning, at 9am, the ribbon will be cut, and the NMAH will again be open to the public, a combination of new and old, of historic talismans and of high technology.
Yesterday, at the re-dedication of the museum, there was no shortage of fanfare and pomp. The Army District of Washington’s fife and drum corps was present, a brass quintet from the Army Band played, and one of their vocalists sang the national anthem. The President gave a short speech on the importance of the Smithsonian, and what their collection represents in terms of national ideals. President Bush and the First Lady have arranged for the handwritten White House copy of the Gettysburg Address to be on display with the Museum until early January, and you can stand just inches from the famous text, handwritten by President Lincoln. Around the corner is the book in which that speech appeared, as it was part of a fundraising effort in 1864 for the Union Army. Also included was the original copy of the Star Spangled Banner, in Francis Scott Key’s own hand.
The new heart of the NMAH is the main hall that you enter from the Mall side of the museum. With a new open feeling, and a gorgeous five-story skylight and atrium, the central core of the Museum is utterly unrecognizable as its old self. The first thing you see is the nineteen by forty foot flag, constructed in reflective plating across the marble wall on the far side of the atrium. With 15 stripes (appropriate for the original Star Spangled Banner, as it would have been flying in 1814, after Kentucky & Vermont had joined the Union), it was constructed with the aid of mathematical modeling based on the waving of flags in the wind. Behind it, in a specially crafted room, lies the original Star Spangled Banner that flew at Fort McHenry while the British bombarded the fort during the war of 1812.
In that special room, behind thick glass, and under dim light is the original flag from Fort McHenry that inspired Francis Scott Key’s poem, which is projected against the rear wall of the chamber. I don’t think I remember seeing the flag on my last visit prior to the closing, but I certainly don’t remember the size of the flag. Its size is overwhelming, laid out on the flat surface of the new preserving room. It stretches out into the distance in what feels like an optical illusion.
There’s an amazing Microsoft Surface exhibit with a 15′ x 3′ table that you can touch and move around the flag to see different historical highlights of the preservation of this flag, and its significance. Little circles and trigger buttons appear throughout the flag, which can be engaged as popups like the one shown above. They feature historical data about the flag, about its creation and its preservation over time. I could’ve played with it for hours, and I suspect there will be many people who feel the same way.
Historian David McCullough was on hand yesterday to give the Keynote speech. It was his words that moved me most when he talked about how the museum’s greatest importance is context for the imbued talismans in its care. So many of the displays in the NMAH were organized around objects. Some of them are contextualized well (as the Star Spangled Banner), while some, like the Greensboro Lunch Counter remain mostly unexplained on their own, and likely benefit heavily from guided tours. It was a pretty stark contrast between all the reading material surrounding the Flag, while so little reading material was presented with regard to the Lunch Counter.
NMAH reopens tomorrow morning at 10am, but there will be a ceremony that begins at 8:30am on the Mall, so if you’re willing to brave the late Fall chill, you see some of the Golden Knights parachute onto the Mall, Colin Powell will be speaking, and they’ll be doing a demonstration firing of an 1812 cannon on the Mall itself. The opening is just the first event in a three day festival at the Museum that starts tomorrow. Be sure to check it out.
Special thanks to Laura at NMAH for help with yesterday’s events.