Winter 2009 | Volume 58, Issue 6
Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History reopens after major renovations
As you mount a shallow ramp in the heart of the Smithsonian's newly renovated National Museum of American History (NMAH), your eyes dilate in the dimming light. Turn left and there lies the Star-Spangled Banner, the flag designed with 15 stars and 15 stripes, so close that it seems you could reach out and touch its tattered fly edge. It's tattered because one star and many, many swatches—about eight-feet worth—were cut away and sold for souvenirs before this surviving 30-by-34-foot icon came to the Smithsonian for safekeeping.
Painstakingly conserved, it now lies at a gentle 10-degree angle so as to minimize physical stress on its fragile cotton fibers. To reduce ultraviolet damage, the chamber behind glass is lit dimly. By intent, the space evokes "the dawn's early light" by which Francis Scott Key saw the great standard flying over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 and wrote the words that became our national anthem.
The flag has pride of place in an inner sanctum within a virtually new museum, a far cry from the old interior where it hung for 34 years, vertical and remote, in a cavernous room near a forgettable entrance. Further, the new Flag Hall explains the significance of the war that birthed the banner, a conflict that is taught poorly in our schools and not widely understood, says Brent D. Glass, the museum's director. The War of 1812 would solidify our boundary with Canada and presage a new relationship with Great Britain, then our adversary and soon to become our most faithful and enduring ally. The exhibit also contains a charred timber from the White House, which was burned when British troops torched Washington in 1814, and the display text recalls how our staunch defense of Baltimore’s port convinced the invaders that victory over upstart America would not be easy. Consequently, the British, who were also locked in the life-or-death war with Napoleon's France, sued for peace with the United States. Our prestige among nations soared after that. More than a pretty rag, the Star-Spangled Banner marks a pivot point of our past.
The Flag Hall, along with much of the enormous building's exhibition space, has been changed, modernized, and improved during a four- year construction project. Instead of nondescript foyers, visitors now enter a vast, five-story-tall sunlit cube and atrium that Glass calls the “public square.” He sees it as a commons, a gathering place that can even serve for official events, such as the naturalization ceremony scheduled during the gala opening in November. This enormous room, entered on the ground floor from Constitution Avenue or a level higher from the heavier-trafficked National Mall, serves as the junction of the building's six exhibition wings (two on each of the three public floors).
Each wing presents a broad topical theme within the march of U.S. history: Science, Technology, Politics, Society, Military History, and Popular Culture. A “landmark object” identifying each wing is visible from the public square as well as from the other wings: on the first floor, the 1865 Vassar Telescope (Science) and the antique steam locomotive John Bull (Technology); on the second floor, Horatio Greenough's titanic, toga-clad marble sculpture of George Washington (Politics) and the quite ordinary lunch counter where the nation-changing civil rights sit-in movement began (Society); on the third floor, Clara Barton's first International Red Cross ambulance (Military History) and Walt Disney's flying elephant Dumbo (Popular Culture).
The mandate for a clearer layout and thematic exhibitions came from a blue ribbon commission, which found in 2002 that the popular but staid museum was “incoherent.” While the physical plant was deteriorating, the exhibits were poorly arranged, with no organizing principle. Why, the commission asked, were there no exhibitions to inform visitors about central abiding topics in American history: the role of religion, immigration, Hispanic and Asian Pacific cultures, even “the mythic power” of the cowboy?
When Glass assumed the helm at the end of that year, he inherited the decision to restore the paradigmatic American flag that inspired our national anthem. Plans were also in the offing to renovate the building's core public space and physical infrastructure, and funds had been donated variously for a new Center for the Study of Innovation and Invention, a learning center, a welcome center, and a gallery for changing exhibitions. But all these efforts were proceeding willy-nilly at their own paces and in their own chosen directions.
Glass, who had directed Pennsylvania's comprehensive history and museum program (the nation's largest), became NMAH's central organizer, coordinator, facilitator, motivator, and visionary. His principal goal was to develop and assure coherence—in both physical and intellectual terms— to better serve the visitor and, by extension, the American people.
He believes the museum's purpose is to display objects from its peerless collections, such as the hat Abe Lincoln wore to Ford's Theatre that fateful night in 1865, so that visitors can connect with the past. (And yes, there will be special events to mark the 16th president's bicentennial.) Sometimes the connection happens through the new roving interpreters who play historical figures such as Mary Pickersgill, who sewed the flag for Fort McHenry, the brave kids who staged the sit-ins at the North Carolina lunch counter, and veterans of our various wars reading their letters home.
It's not enough to put curious objects on display, says Glass. Rather, the museum's goal should be to offer the objects as gateways into the vibrant lives of people who came before us. In myriad ways, the museum illustrates how Americans have overcome obstacles and survived crises such as the Civil War and the Great Depression, and that we not only survived the hard times but resolved many difficult issues. The American dream offered no land of milk and honey but a place of opportunity for those who dared to seek it. Yet inevitably one group's triumph could be another's distress. Thus after exhibits celebrating the American Revolution, the museum points out the provocative challenges that remained: while we won the struggle for independence, that victory left unfinished business—in the fate of Native American peoples, the institutionalizing of slavery, and the second- class status of women.
Glass hopes the new museum will "let the visitor be more inspired by our objects—inspired to learn more, and to explore who we are as Americans." Virtual visitors seemed to be doing that even before the doors reopened in November. Before the $85-million renovation, NMAH could count on 3 million visitors a year; now its history-centered Web site (americanhistory.si.edu) has been getting 15 million hits, and its newsletter's subscription base is on the march.
Another challenge remains. As actual visitors and virtual ones gain a sense of inspiration and discovery, the museum's success will lie in their desire to learn more about what history can teach us. After all, we ourselves will be seen one day as denizens of the living past, people who faced the challenges that arose, then prevailed or failed, or did some of each.