From the Castle: History Ahead

A renovated National Museum of American History opens up American history and culture to millions of visitors

Greensboro Woolworth's Lunch Counter
The Greensboro Woolworth's Lunch Counter, desegregated by a 1960 sit-in, anchors a wing of the renovated museum. Hugh Talman, SI

On November 21, the Star-Spangled Banner, which, of course, inspired our national anthem, goes on display in a monumental, inspiring new gallery, the heart of a two-year, $85 million renovation of the National Museum of American History (NMAH). The focus has been on major enhancements—a grand staircase and a dramatic five-story, sky-lit atrium—and infrastructure improvements. Work on the museum will continue; east and west wing renewal will take about seven years, creating new physical spaces and better ways to convey American history and culture to millions of visitors.

The current renovation is not only appealing, it's green. NMAH replaced aging heating and cooling systems with ultra-efficient versions. These and new bulbs and ballasts in nearly 3,800 lighting fixtures will result in $1.6 million in annual cost-savings, significant reductions in carbon dioxide emissions and the use of 8,000 fewer pounds of ozone-depleting refrigerants. New dining services—with locally grown offerings; and tableware, carpet and chairs made from recycled materials—will also move the Smithsonian closer to our goal of sustainable, more environmentally friendly facilities.

Historical artifacts from NMAH's collection of more than three million items invite visitors—citizens, recent im- migrants and international guests—to explore our past. America's diverse society is described by historian Ronald Takaki as one in which "the cultures of the world meet...affirming the struggle for equality as a central theme in our country's history." On view at the museum is Lincoln's top hat, evoking his assassination but also the struggle to unify the country and liberate many of its people. Also on display is the desk on which Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. That document set a very high bar, and the challenge to make real Jefferson's soaring words continues. Hundreds of small artifacts line expansive walls in the new NMAH, while larger landmark items—including the 1831 John Bull, one of America's oldest steam locomotives; the Vassar Telescope, used by America's first female astronomer; and the Greensboro (North Carolina) Woolworth's Lunch Counter, an icon of the civil rights movement—anchor six exhibition wings.

As NMAH Director Brent Glass notes, "For people of all ages, a visit to the National Museum of American History, exploring history through superb exhibitions and engaging programs, can be a defining event. Millions will enjoy new opportunities to explore the American narrative and identity and connect with core stories of our national experience in an enlightening and memorable setting."

G. Wayne Clough is Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

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