- The Washington Times - Friday, November 21, 2008

George and Martha Washington, Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz,” and other costumed characters greeted thousands of visitors Friday as the National Museum of American History reopened on the National Mall after a two-year, $85 million renovation.

Retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, the former secretary of state and chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, read President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to a crowd of at least 200 people on the museum’s steps before the doors opened.

“It is the 19th of November, 1863,” Mr. Powell said after the blare of horns announced the start of the famous speech. “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Gen. Powell’s Army uniform hangs in the museum’s gallery on military history.

Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough said Lincoln would have been pleased that Mr. Powell was chosen to read the speech. The museum’s opening is a renewal of the Smithsonian’s effort to educate young people, he said.

“We aspire to tell the story of America and of Americans to ourselves and to the world,” Mr. Clough said.

The Children’s Chorus of Washington sang the national anthem, the crowd waved small American flags, and many wore red-white-and-blue top hats. The museum opened a three-day festival with the firing of a cannon from the era when “The Star-Spangled Banner” was penned in 1814. On Friday and Saturday nights, historical images will be projected onto the building’s facade.

Inside, visitors found favorite exhibits such as Kermit the Frog and a gallery devoted to the American presidency, where President-elect Barack Obama’s picture has already taken its place on a timeline of presidents. Several people gathered around the small photo to take pictures with their cell phone cameras.

“He’s already on here. It’s exciting,” said Amelia Castelli, 26, who was visiting from Miami and spent several minutes getting the right snapshot of Mr. Obama’s picture.

But her goal for the day lay elsewhere.

“What I wanted to see were Dorothy’s ruby red slippers,” Ms. Castelli said. “That’s the only thing I really remember from being here years ago.”

An actress portraying Dorothy in a national tour of “The Wizard of Oz” musical - playing Dec. 2 to 7 in Washington’s Warner Theatre - posed for photos with guests near the slippers exhibit. She sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in the museum lobby.

Museum officials plan to have costumed historic characters on hand every weekend and daily during the busy summer months. George Washington greeted many children on the opening day, teaching them to bow “as we do in Virginia,” he said, rather than shake hands.

Nearly 3,000 people flooded the museum in the first few hours of its opening, officials said. On an average Friday in November, the museum has about 4,000 visitors all day, spokeswoman Valeska Hilbig said.

Scott and Maurlo Parker, who live on Capitol Hill, brought their two young children to see the Star-Spangled Banner in a new, dimly lit gallery that will help preserve the tattered flag.

“We’ve got to do the patriotic stuff, since we live here,” said Mrs. Parker, whose 8-week-old son is named after one of the presidents - James Madison - and 16-month-old daughter is Ellen Virginia Parker.

“He’s very patriotic,” Mrs. Parker said of her husband, who works in a congressional office. She said the flag exhibit was “beautiful.”

“It’s amazing,” she said. “We kind of watched them do the reconstruction, so it was neat to see how it’s all come together.”

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