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National history museum gets $85 million facelift
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire


November 30, 2007
Friday AM

WASHINGTON -- The ruby slippers Judy Garland wore as Dorothy in the "Wizard of Oz" are gone, replaced by a dusty mess of exposed pipes, welding and blown-out ceilings.

Reporters got a sneak peek this week at the $85 million renovation of the National Museum of American History, where demolition is about to be replaced with restoration.

The central corridor of the museum is being renovated from a low-lit and confusing exhibit hall to a showcase featuring such cultural curiosities as the top hat President Lincoln wore when he was assassinated and the home kitchen of famed chef Julia Child.

The Smithsonian Institution museum -- one of many museums peppered on the National Mall -- houses 3 million iconic artifacts, ranging from the obscure to the popular.

One of the museum's most admired pieces is the Star-Spangled Banner -- the 30-by-34-foot tattered flag that inspired the national anthem, written by Francis Scott Key in 1814. It will become the centerpiece of the new atrium.

An 40-by-19 foot abstract flag will be bolted above the entrance of the Star-Spangled Banner Gallery, becoming the focal point of the museum's mall entrance, as designed by New York-based Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.

The flag, which has been with the Smithsonian since 1907, will rest on a platform tilted 10 degrees from the horizontal, in accordance with the U.S. flag code. It can no longer be hung vertically because of stress on the fabric.

The exhibit will be climate controlled under dim lighting to evoke "dawn's early light."

Brent Glass, the museum's director, said the renovation is making "great strides" toward making the museum a place guests can better navigate and enjoy.

"The central core demolition is nearly finished, the shell for the new Star-Spangled Banner gallery is taking shape and we have raised the necessary funds to complete the construction," Glass said during a hard-hat tour of the building.

The 43-year-old museum closed in September 2006 after a blue-ribbon commission report said the museum didn't "meet any obvious test of comprehensibility or coherence." The report said old-fashioned timelines and convoluted corridors gave the museum an outdated feel.

"Visitors will be amazed at the results when we re-open," Glass said.

The first ladies' inaugural gowns exhibit will be completely redesigned, and a welcome center on the first floor will do a better job familiarizing guests with the museum than before, Glass said.

A skylight will bring in more organic feel and brightness to the central atrium, which has been a massive undertaking, said project manager Patrick Ladden, who is overseeing construction for Turner Construction Co.

"There is a lot of construction and a lot of duct work involved, but the skylight is key to lighting this atrium from six stories above," Ladden said.

One of the museum's most popular collections is of entertainment artifacts, which total more than 94,000 pieces. The objects include the "60 Minutes" stopwatch, Archie Bunker's chair and an "Alien" egg prop used in the 1979 film starring Sigourney Weaver.

During the renovations, 150 "greatest hits" artifacts -- including those sequined ruby slippers -- have been temporarily showcased in the "Treasures of American History" exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum.

Glass said he will announce an opening date for the American history museum in February. Original estimates were that the job would take approximately two years.

Contributions to the museum's $180 million capital campaign total more than $150 million, including funding for the current renovations. Money from the government and private donations have construction costs covered, but an additional $27 million is needed to reach Smithsonian's 2010 goal for future projects, Glass said.

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