- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2008

Oh, say will that Star-Spangled Banner be seen when the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History reopens Nov. 21 after two years.

The American flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the words of the national anthem during the War of 1812 will be displayed inside a specially designed gallery on the second floor of the museum, which has been undergoing renovations since 2006.

This climate- and light-controlled space will form the centerpiece of an $85 million overhaul of the building’s core. Now nearing completion is the five-story, skylit atrium at the heart of the museum that will lead visitors to the new flag gallery from entrances off the Mall and Constitution Avenue.

“We will shed new light on American history, both literally and figuratively,” museum director Brent Glass said before Wednesday’s hard-hat tour of the building. “We want visitors to come away with a deeper understanding of the American dream.”

The museum’s renovations are continuing, but the tour showed the atrium to be more light-filled and accessible than the previous entrance halls to the museum. It is meant to better orient visitors to exhibits on American political, military, social, technological and cultural history, which are drawn from a collection of about 3 million objects.

Those entering from Constitution Avenue will be able to look through the glass treads of the atrium staircase to see the Mall side of the building on the second floor.

Other new spaces include the Star-Spangled Banner chamber, a second-floor welcome center, a cafe and a lobby for the 275-seat Carmichael Auditorium. New elevators, restrooms and lighting will update the building’s infrastructure, along with new air conditioning, heating, plumbing and security systems. The improvements cover about 120,000 square feet of the museum’s 300,000 square feet of space.

Architect Gary Haney of New York-based Skidmore, Owings and Merrill said the most difficult renovation challenge was “working within the confines of the existing building.” Originally designed by McKim, Mead and White, the New York firm responsible for the Memorial Bridge, the marble-sheathed, boxy museum opened in 1964. It was called the Museum of History and Technology until 1980, until the name was changed to the National Museum of American History.

The tour revealed the atrium to be an angular space with glass-paneled balustrades around the third floor and a slanted ceiling rising to a south-facing skylight. Mr. Glass called the central space a “new public square” for events such as naturalization ceremonies, speeches and symposiums.

Still to be installed on the atrium walls are 275 linear feet of glass cases showcasing more than 400 objects, including an early electric vacuum, a nearly 20-foot-long model of an ocean liner and political campaign buttons. The renovation will allow the museum to rotate and display more artifacts from its collections.

“We wanted a ‘wow’ space that says we have the nation’s history collections,” said associate director Jim Gardner. “The idea is put things on the walls that don’t get out in exhibits.”

On one side of the atrium, a Vermont marble-clad wall was being readied for what Mr. Haney called “the wave,” a rippling sculpture of reflective, polycarbonate panels. This 40-foot-long and 19-foot-tall abstract flag will greet visitors as they enter the museum from the Mall and mark the entrance to the Star-Spangled Banner gallery.

From the atrium, a hallway lined in glass panels will allow visitors’ eyes to adjust before they enter the dimly lit room where the tattered, 1813 flag will be displayed. Already in place is the metal platform on which the 30-by-34-foot banner will be mounted. It rises at a 10-degree angle from the floor to reduce stress on the preserved textile and can be lowered to become flat. A gantry set a few inches above the platform can be rolled across the wool and cotton flag so conservators can reach its center portions.

To protect the fabric, the exhibit enclosure has a separate mechanical system to maintain a constant temperature of 68 to 72 degrees and relative humidity of 50 percent. Electrical wiring is kept outside the gray-painting space to avoid the danger of sparks and damage to the flag.

Lighting will be kept low and projected onto the platform through a glass partition on the third floor. It is meant to evoke the “dawn’s early light,” as written by Key in 1814 when he saw the flag flying over Fort McHenry during the British siege in Baltimore Harbor.

The flag is being stored in the museum’s conservation lab, where it has undergone extensive treatment to stabilize its 15 stripes and 14 stars. In the new gallery, it will rest on a thin fabric that will be placed over sailcloth attached to the exhibit platform. This installation will take place in late August so the textile can acclimate to its new surroundings.

Visitors will view the flag through glass from a built-in bench in the walnut-lined gallery. The first stanza of Key’s poem, which became the national anthem in 1931, will be projected on the wall behind the flag.

After the museum reopens in November, the permanent-collection galleries in the east and west wings of the building will be upgraded while the building stays open. Those renovations are expected to be completed in 2014, in time for the museum’s 50th anniversary.

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