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Museum Of American History: A Gem Gets Polished


The National Mall in Washington, D.C., is set to regain a star attraction Friday, as the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History reopens after a two-year renovation. It took $85 million and a horde of curators, builders, architects and advisers to reframe space for the museum's 3 million historic objects.

The Smithsonian Institution is often called "the nation's attic." And its American History Museum had become a dusty corner in that attic. A jumble of exhibits — Abraham Lincoln's top hat, Julia Child's kitchen, a segregated lunch counter, a piece of Plymouth Rock — could leave a visitor thrilled, puzzled, lost and confused all in the space of a few hundred steps.

But the newly configured museum sorts out the jumble. And with some very ordinary objects, it makes clear, narrative points about the American experience.

Just inside the museum's broad glass front doors, a visitor finds a wall of artifacts. They include Mike Grgich's beat-up suitcase, in which he carried textbooks on wine from Yugoslavia to America in 1954. Grgich now runs one of Napa Valley's top vineyards.

There is also a rusted key that Samuel Morse pressed in 1844 to officially open his electric telegraph line. And nail and cuticle clippers from Catherine Hann, who taught biology before escaping Vietnam in 1981. In the United States, she became a manicurist.

Of all the pieces of America's history, the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write our National Anthem takes pride of place in the refurbished museum.

Displayed in a massive case lit dimly — like the dawn's early light — the banner lies flat and slightly angled. It is a repaired yet still tattered witness to the victory over the British in the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812. It's a throat-catching reminder of determination and endurance.

The museum, which is free, also will introduce new generations of visitors to Dorothy's Ruby Slippers, Kermit the Frog and Jackie Kennedy's inaugural gown.

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Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.