- The Washington Times - Friday, November 21, 2008

Of all the Smithsonian Institution’s venues on the Mall, the dreariest and most discomfiting has been the National Museum of American History. The lack of daylight, views and clear architectural order inside its boxy enclosure often disoriented visitors looking for the First Ladies’ inaugural gowns, Julia Child’s kitchen and the Star-Spangled Banner.

That confusion has been largely eliminated by the $85 million renovation of the building’s central core. Closed since 2006, the museum reopens Friday with a brighter and more coherent introduction to its three floors of exhibits.

Design partner Gary Haney and his team from the New York office of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLC have resuscitated the dark heart of the museum with luminous spaces more practical than poetic. Their insertion of a tall, skylit atrium and grand staircase to link the Constitution Avenue and Mall entrances solves most of the navigation problems that long plagued the 1964 building.

Gone are the pendulum, the flag hall and other idiosyncrasies at the building’s center. They have been swept clean by austere, airy spaces lined by glass-fronted cases displaying only the highlights of the collections.

The renovation supplies the spaces now required of modern museums - gift shops, an information center and a cafe - but adds only one major exhibition space. This gallery sensitively displays the museum’s most important object, the restored flag that inspired our national anthem.

Mr. Haney’s orderly, no-frills architecture of glass-paneled walls, terrazzo floors and stainless steel trim supplies a sleekly contemporary, if corporate, image for a museum previously choked with clutter.

It is all a bit too neat. The clean-lined atrium could have benefited from the display of the museum’s bigger artifacts - its old locomotive, covered wagon or Dumbo car from Disneyland - to provide the contrast of history.

Instead of stirring up visual excitement, Mr. Haney has quietly updated the museum with respect for its original design. The 1964 building was designed by McKim, Mead and White, a venerable New York firm long past its prime, to blend two antithetical traditions - classicism and modernism.

Its exterior resembles a stripped-down temple with marble-faced slabs treated like columns. Inside, the galleries embrace the open-plan concept of unencumbered spaces for changeable exhibits.

Mr. Haney reinforced this hybrid quality through spaces reflective of classical symmetry and modern openness. While his atrium and stair hall look contemporary, their spatial sequence draws on an old beaux-arts idea, the grand promenade.

From the Constitution Avenue entrance, visitors now walk straight through a wide hallway lined with exhibits toward the light coming in from the second floor on the Mall side of the building.

A staircase at the end of this passageway, connecting the first and second floors, is as much a light filter as a circulation route. It is the most provocative element of Mr. Haney’s design.

The stair treads are made of glass striped in a ceramic frit to transmit daylight from the upper Mall level to the floor below (some visitors may find walking on the glass unsettling).

Just beyond the top of the stairs, the five-story atrium creates a sense of arrival and uplift. Museum director Brent Glass calls it a “new public square” for events such as naturalization ceremonies, speeches and parties.

The hall’s slanted ceiling soars upward to funnel daylight from a south-facing skylight into the center of the building. All the glass-paneling and metal in the space turn out to have a pragmatic purpose in reflecting the light.

On the third floor, marble panels were removed to create open balconies looking into the space. They fan outward to direct the view to the focal point of the atrium - a rippling, abstract flag mounted on a wall of Vermont marble.

Another light reflector, the shiny, banded sculpture symbolizes the museum’s premier attraction, the 1813 flag that inspired our national anthem. It marks the entrance to the new gallery where the preserved Star-Spangled Banner is now displayed.

To reach that space, visitors enter a passageway flanked by exhibits relating the battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812. The dimly lit hallway allows their eyes to adjust before entering the darkened space where the tattered flag is displayed horizontally behind a glass partition.

The solemn space, with its built-in bench, is more a shrine than a gallery. The only light comes from tiny spots set into the walnut floor and the first stanza of Francis Scott Key’s poem-turned-anthem, projected on the wall behind the flag. The restricted illumination is part of a strategy to protect the banner from further degradation.

Inside the temperature-controlled exhibit enclosure, the historic textile is mounted on a movable metal platform, which is raised at a 10-degree angle to reduce stress on the fabric. This position allows a clear view of the missing components of the banner, including the place where its 15th star should be.

In the corridor leading out of the space, more exhibits and piped-in renditions of the national anthem relate the history and meaning of the flag. A large touch screen allows for a close-up examination of its stars and stripes.

Back in the atrium, the east-west hallways leading to the galleries are clearly visible on the sides of the space. These marble-lined corridors, now emptied of exhibits, have been refurbished with fabric-paneled lighting and new seating to become spacious waiting rooms.

They lead to lone artifacts highlighting the themes of the gallery exhibits, including the whites-only lunch counter from the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, N.C., where four black college students sat down in 1960 to protest racial segregation.

Beyond these objects, the galleries remain structurally unchanged but will host several new exhibits during the next few months, including a display of the Gettysburg Address through Jan. 4.

Remodeling of the west wing will commence in 2011, followed by an overhaul of the east wing in 2013, according to the museum director. The current parking garage will be converted to offices to make room for more exhibit space inside the building.

Still a work in progress, the museum is at last becoming a more hospitable place to view the country’s past accomplishments.

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