Museum Renovation

Answers to frequently asked questions about the museum's architectural transformation. This phase of renovation was completed in November 2008 and the museum is now open.

What exactly was involved in your renovation? How does the Museum look different, how is the visitor experience improved?

The transformation project focused on three areas: architectural enhancements to the interior of the more than 42-year-old building, constructing a state-of-the-art gallery for the Star-Spangled Banner and updating the building’s infrastructure (mechanical, electrical, plumbing, lighting, fire and security systems).

This phase of the renovation concentrated on the core of the Museum. The Museum has plans for future projects to renovate the east and the west wings, including updates to the infrastructure and exhibitions.

Visitors can greatly benefit from the improved basic amenities, including more restrooms, family restrooms, new elevators and more. By opening up the central core; adding a grand staircase and a skylight; improving lighting; adding exhibition space; and reducing clutter, visitors enjoy a grand, open and easily navigated environment. Artifact walls allow the Museum to display even more objects from its collections than before.

Come and see for yourself!

Why did you have to close the Museum during the renovation? Why for so long?

Closing the Museum was not the first choice, but after many careful studies it was clear that closing the Museum was the quickest, most cost effective and safest (concerning public, staff, construction workers and collections) way to accomplish the Museum’s goals.

How much did the renovation cost?

This renovation project, which was completed in 2008, cost approximately $85 million, of which more than $45 million came from federal funds, which covered the cost of the infrastructure replacement, restrooms, elevators and protection for the collections during construction.

What happened to the staff while the Museum was closed to the public?

The work of the Museum continued as usual. Staff continued to occupy the building, specifically the non-construction areas on the 4th and 5th floor, and planned exhibitions and programs like the recently opened On the Water. They worked on research projects and education initiatives; conducted off-site public programs and performances; acquired new collections and extended the reach of the Web site with new online exhibitions and features.

Will the pendulum come back?

No. A version of Foucault’s pendulum was displayed in the Museum from the time it opened in 1964 to late 1998. The new design for the Museum dramatically opens up the central core to allow for improved visibility and navigation through the building. There is a contrast in the floor, outlining the footprint of the oculus for the pendulum that serves as a a reminder of the building’s original architecture.

Did your collections remain in the building while the construction is going on? If so, did you take special precautions to care for them and secure them during this time?

Most of the collections that are housed in the building remained here under special protective measures. Other objects were moved to off-site storage.

What happened to the Star-Spangled Banner during this period?

The Star-Spangled Banner remained in the building, inside the environmentally-controlled conservation laboratory under the necessary precautions, until the flag was moved to its new gallery.

Why did the Star-Spangled Banner project take so much longer than originally announced? It was said to be a three-year project and now it is eight years after the work started.

The Star-Spangled Banner is a unique and irreplaceable object. The treatment included careful deliberation with experts in the field and testing of methods prior to their application on the flag. After each step of the treatment, the resulting insights and next steps were reconsidered. Changes in the final design for the new flag gallery also impacted the work on the flag towards the end of the treatment as the flag was prepared for its new home.

Why does the flag appear so tattered?

Now that the flag is no longer attached to a linen backing and obscured by some 1.7 million stitches, the fragility of the flag has become more evident. There is no doubt that the conservation treatment consisting of a cleaning and stabilizing the banner was beneficial and will ensure its preservation for many years. The Museum did not set out to restore the flag to look like new.

Is it worth it to spend that much time and money on one artifact?

There is only one Star-Spangled Banner and it is a priceless artifact with immense historical significance to the American people. The commander of Fort McHenry realized immediately after the battle that this was no longer an ordinary flag and he instilled this sentiment in his family. They cared for it and then entrusted it to the Smithsonian to preserve it and encourage the American public to visit their flag. We honor this trust that was placed in us.

The banner represents the struggle for democracy and we hope that it will touch hearts and teach history for a long time to come. You can’t put a price on this kind of inspiration.

Conservation projects like this are significant and we are breaking new ground in research and techniques all the time. What we learn and the practices we have developed during this conservation project will influence flag and textile conservation here and at other institutions for a long time.

Learn more about the new Star-Spangled Banner gallery.