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Baltimore's Star-Spangled Banner is the star of the show at the newly renovated American History museum in Washington

November 20, 2008|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

WASHINGTON - The Star-Spangled Banner has a snazzy new home - and it's already the talk of the town.

When the National Museum of American History reopens tomorrow after a two-year, $85 million renovation, visitors will finally get a glimpse at what museum officials are calling a "dramatic transformation" of the 44-year-old building.

The most stunning evidence of this is a five-story-high, skylit atrium that greets museumgoers as they enter from the National Mall.

The airy lobby is dominated by a large steel structure in the shape of a waving flag, consisting of 960 reflective tiles, and a wide, futuristic-looking glass staircase that updates the museum's core.

"One of our major goals was to open up the museum and reduce the closed-in feeling," said Brent D. Glass, the museum's director. "And we accomplished that."

But the glittering centerpiece of the museum is the new Star-Spangled Gallery, which offers visitors a unique look at the nearly 200-year-old Star Spangled Banner, the flag that inspired the national anthem.

Audiovisual displays on the wall leading into the gallery depict scenes from the Battle of Baltimore in 1814 that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the stirring poem that would become "The Star-Spangled Banner."

The 30-by-34-foot flag is displayed in a dimly lit glass enclosure that regulates the temperature and humidity to protect its aged wool and cotton fabric.

The low lighting is also designed to evoke the "dawn's early light" that Key saw after the fierce bombardment of Fort McHenry, which he watched from a British ship anchored in Baltimore's harbor.

The first stanza of the national anthem is projected in bold yellow lettering in the darkness above the flag, and benches allow visitors to sit and contemplate the solemnity of the display.

There's also a new, interactive table in the shape of the banner that visitors can touch to learn about the flag's history and how the flag was made.

"The flag exhibit will be one of the great destinations in Washington," said Glass. "It'll be like visiting the Statue of Liberty in New York or the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia."

Another popular new display will be the Gettysburg Address, which will be on view only until Jan. 4.

The manuscript, which is said to be one of five drafts and the last to be written by President Abraham Lincoln, was previously on display on a desk in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House, which is not open for public tours.

The 270-word address commemorating Union soldiers who died during the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863 is generally thought of as one of the most famous speeches in history.

With the reopening, museum officials say they've tried to blend "signature exhibits" with old favorites and adventurous new displays.

The popular First Ladies at the Smithsonian, scheduled to open next month, is an updated version of a previous display that explores the history of America's first ladies and exhibits dresses and gowns they've worn.

The Vassar Telescope, which anchors the west wing's Science and Innovation section, is a new exhibit that's also expected to draw visitors.

Used by Maria Mitchell, the country's first female astronomer and "first female scientist of note," it was called the Vassar Telescope because it was purchased through the funding of Matthew Vassar, the founder and benefactor of Vassar College.

Two popular and familiar displays are the Woolworth's "whites only" lunch counter from Jim Crow-era Greensboro, N.C., and Julia Child's kitchen.

In 1960, four black students staged a sit-in at the Woolworth's lunch counter after being refused service and told to leave, an act of defiance that led to student, church and community protests and the eventual desegregation of the lunch counter five months later.

Julia Child's kitchen, the set of the legendary cooking diva's TV shows, was moved from her home in California and painstakingly reassembled in the museum to look exactly as it did on the air.

The kitchen contains her original cooking utensils, personal cookbooks, a stainless-steel kitchen sink and her six-burner Garland commercial range.

For parents of restless young children, a new exhibit called Spark! Lab may prove to be the biggest draw of all.

Designed mainly for children ages 6 to 12, it's a workplace with tables, activity boxes and kits that allows kids to dream up their own science projects and learn how inventions are invented.

The Museum of American History attracted 3 million visitors in both 2005 and 2006, and museum officials think the recent renovations could boost yearly attendance by 10 percent or more.

"Many museums experience their best year in the first year they're open," said Glass. "But I expect our attendance to stay at the level we've experienced or be slightly higher."

if you go

The National Museum of American History is on the National Mall, 14th Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest in Washington.

Hours are 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. On Reopening Day, tomorrow, the museum will stay open until 7:30 p.m.

Call 202-633-1000 or go to americanhistory.si.edu.

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