Smithsonian Selects Firm to Plan Renovation of its National Museum of American History Building

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Behring Center, has selected the New York-based architecture firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP to launch the museum’s renovation of its 38-year-old building.

SOM’s tasks include developing a concept plan that will include examining both exterior and interior spaces of what was described in the 1950s and early 1960s as a "contemporary classic" building. Architect David Childs, a consulting partner and partner-in-charge of design with SOM, will lead the National Museum of American History project. Childs’ experience includes master planning for the National Mall, the redevelopment of Penn Station in New York and the renovation and expansion of Dulles Airport. Recently, Childs has completed design work on 7 World Trade Center and is one of the architects whose work may be considered for the twin towers site.

"The Smithsonian envisions a dramatic increase in visitors to the National Museum of American History. This project will better establish a sense of place, amplifying the best features of the building and its site," said the museum’s Acting Director, Marc Pachter.

The contract directs the firm to investigate ideas for improving visitor circulation and navigation, increasing exhibition space and updating and improving public facilities, such as restrooms, restaurants and other amenities. Recent recommendations from the museum’s Blue Ribbon Commission and a "pre-concept" study conducted by the Dahlin Group in July 2001 will provide guidance for the work of the architectural firm.

The Blue Ribbon Commission, composed of historians, museum professionals and others, was charged with advising the museum on timely and relevant themes and methods of presentation. The commission’s report, issued in May, included seven recommendations for improving the architectural and aesthetic setting for museum exhibitions and visitors’ experiences: open the central section or "core" of the museum; treat the Star-Spangled Banner as the museum’s central icon; identify additional "icons" and highlight them in major sections of the museum; create a chronological introductory exhibition to American History, improve lighting, add exhibition space and reduce clutter.

The initial evaluation of the building by the Dahlin Group examined the "core" area that is defined as the three-story space encompassing the museum’s two main entrances on the first and second floors and the third floor space immediately above the entrance areas.

Designed by Walker Cain of McKim, Mead & White, the museum opened in 1964. Since then, the building has undergone many changes including the relocation of escalators, creation of additional interior walls for exhibition space and the expansion of staff office space onto the first and third floors.

Top priorities under the contract include:

Designing the central "core" so that it becomes the heart of the museum and can be used as a way to orient visitors to exhibitions of interest to them

Creating a plan that will phase-in the project, working to keep the museum open to the public

Providing ideas for transforming the exterior and interior of the building

SOM will provide the Smithsonian with a detailed technical analysis and preliminary budget estimates for its recommendations including exhibition spaces and visitor circulation.

Randall "Randy" Inouye, formerly the deputy director in the office of engineering and construction management at the Department of Energy, has been selected by the museum to oversee its renovation project.

The renovation project has been made possible by the $80 million donation to the museum from Kenneth E. Behring in September 2000. Of that, approximately $35 million will be applied toward the architectural planning, design and construction. The other half of the donation will fund the Armed Forces Hall renovation, including a new exhibition, "The Price of Freedom" scheduled to open in 2004 and a new introductory exhibition to the museum scheduled to open in 2006. In addition, "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden" exhibition, which opened in November 2000, received $4 million from the Behring donation.

Once SOM completes the plans and submits estimated costs, the museum is expected to embark on an additional fund-raising campaign in 2003. There is no set date for completing the entire renovation. Current plans call for the museum to stay open to the public during its renovation. Some galleries and halls will be closed as work progresses.

Approximately 90 firms requested information about the museum’s project following the release of the Request for Proposals in November 2001 and 10 firms submi tted full proposals by Feb. 4, 2002. SOM was chosen following recommendations from a review panel. SOM’s portfolio includes the design of two Chicago landmarks, the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Center; the design of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden and restaurant, and other performing arts and education buildings.

The museum has also asked SOM to provide a list of projects that could proceed independently from the master plan project. For example, other recent donations will allow the museum to replace older exhibitions, some of which date back to the building’s opening. The "America On The Move" exhibition opening in November 2003 replaces the halls of transportation, railroad and civil engineering. General Motors has donated $10 million for this permanent exhibition and six other donors have contributed to the $20 million project.

The reinstallation of the Star-Spangled Banner and its accompanying exhibition are already planned for the second floor. Since 1999, the flag has been in a customized laboratory undergoing conservation, and research from that process has determined that optimal display for the flag is at an angle of 30 degrees or less. Of the $18 million preservation project budget, Polo Ralph Lauren contributed $10 million and the Pew Charitable Trusts gave $5 million. The museum will seek additional support for the new flag exhibition, "For Which It Stands."

A portion of the $40 million donation from the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Foundation will support the creation of a re-designed Lemelson Center space, incorporating offices and exhibition areas on the first floor of the museum.


The National Museum of American History traces American heritage through exhibitions of social, cultural, scientific and technological history. Collections are displayed in exhibitions that interpret the American experience from Colonial times to the present. The museum is located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except Dec. 25. For more information, visit the museum’s Web site at or call (202) 633-1000.

Media onlyMelinda Machado
(202) 357-3129