Arts & Life


There will be another cultural celebration on the Mall in Washington tomorrow. The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History reopens after a renovation. Here are some numbers. It took $85 million, a horde of curators, builders, architects, and advisers to reframe spaces for the museum's three million historic objects. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg says some old glories have never looked better.

SUSAN STAMBERG: They don't call the Smithsonian Institution "the nation's attic" for nothing. And its American History Museum had become maybe the attic's dustiest section. A jumble of things from Abe Lincoln's top hat to Julia Child's kitchen to a segregated Southern lunch counter to a piece of Plymouth Rock - a visitor could be thrilled, puzzled, lost, and confused in the space of a few hundred steps. But the newly configured History Museum sorts out the jumble, and with some very ordinary objects makes clear, narrative points about the American experience.

(Soundbite of national anthem "The Star-Spangled Banner")

STAMBERG: Just inside the broad glass front doors, a wall of artifacts. Mike Grgich's beat-up suitcase carried textbooks on wine from Yugoslavia to America in 1954. Now he runs one of Napa's top vineyards. There's a rusted key Samuel Morse pressed in 1844 to officially open his electric telegraph line and nail and cuticle clippers from Catherine Hann. She taught biology before escaping Vietnam in 1981. Here 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 - a repaired yet still tattered witness to a battle Baltimore won against the British in the War of 1812. It's a throat-catching reminder of determination and endurance.

(Soundbite of song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow")

Ms. JUDY GARLAND (As Dorothy): (Singing) Somewhere over the rainbow...

STAMBERG: Dorothy's ruby slippers, Kermit the Frog, Jackie Kennedy's inaugural gown - those icons are also at the spiffed-up American History Museum. And starting tomorrow on the National Mall, the museum opens its shiny, welcoming doors to new generations of visitors. And it's free. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow")

Ms. GARLAND (As Dorothy): (Singing) Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue.

INSKEEP: Without even traveling to Washington, you can also go free to our Web site where we've got a slideshow I'm watching here now, different images of the museum. You can see the artifacts - a vacuum cleaner, nail clippers, a giant American flag. It's at It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

(Soundbite of song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow")

Ms. GARLAND (As Dorothy): (Singing) Where troubles melt like lemon drops, away above the chimney tops...

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from