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'America's Attic' Reopened

Visitors to Washington can now see some of the most treasured artifacts in the United States. After being closed two years for renovations, the National Museum of American History reopened its doors this month [Nov 21] to great fanfare.

Hundreds of people braved cold temperatures to be among the first to enter the newly renovated building. One man came with a group that included 142 schoolchildren from Morganton, North Carolina. "We're just happy to be here on the first day," he said.

Dramatic structural changes

For the past two years, the museum that is known as "the nation's attic" has undergone major changes. Walls, floors and ceilings were removed from the center of the building, creating a five story, sky lit atrium.

"It is a very dramatic change that has been accomplished over the last two years," says Brent Glass, Director of the National Museum of American History. "We call it a transformation. And we say we are shedding new light on American history. "

Three million artifacts

Visitors come here to learn about all aspects of American history: military, political, entertainment, science, and commerce. More than three million artifacts are in the museum's collections, from the desk on which Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence to the ruby slippers Judy Garland wore in one of America's best-loved movies, "The Wizard of Oz."

"This museum is the repository of more objects that tell the story of our country than any other place you can go. And it's all the real thing," says David McCullough.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian urges all American parents to bring their children to Washington as a history lesson "but particularly come here, because there is nothing comparable to this museum."

As for overseas visitors to the museum, McCullough says they will learn that the United States is a place of possibilities.

This is where you will find the light bulb Thomas Edison patented in 1879 and boxing gloves worn by former heavyweight boxing champions Mohamed Ali and Joe Louis. Also on display is the lunch counter that helped spark the Civil Rights Movement when four young black men refused to give up their seats in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Star Spangled Banner

On opening day, visitors waited in line to view one of the most treasured objects in the museum. The flag that inspired the U.S. National Anthem now has its own gallery.

"We discovered in the late 1990s that it was too fragile to be displayed the way it had been since the museum opened in 1964," says Glass. "It could not hang at a 90 degree (angle) against the wall the way it had in the past, so we needed to rethink the way we displayed the flag."

Now the "Star Spangled Banner" is laid out on an angled support behind glass and illuminated in dim lighting that evokes "the dawn's early light" that Francis Scott Key wrote about nearly 200 years ago. Displays leading in and out of the new gallery provide background on the flag and the anthem it inspired.

The Gettysburg Address

Another new gallery in the museum showcases important historic documents. From now through January 4, one of the most famous speeches written by a U.S. president is on display here, on loan from the White House. The Gettysburg Address was delivered by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 in the midst of the U.S. Civil War. It was read at the National Museum of American History's opening ceremony by former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

"It's so important for our young people today to understand a lot of people came before, a lot of sacrifice was made before, in order to make America what it is today," Powell told VOA after the ceremonies.

That was definitely on the mind of one African American woman who came on opening day "to be a part of history. There's a lot of that going on this year."

That recent history is on display here, too. Although he hasn't yet moved into the White House, Barack Obama's portrait has already been added to the presidential timeline in the museum.