Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Written by Lee.  Happy Thanksgiving everyone – Trace

Tracy and I were really bummed that the Natural History museum was closed, that one is her personal favorite, but right next door the National Museum of American History was open, albeit with COVID mitigation conditions. (UPDATE: This visit was in mid October, and as of this writing, 11/26/20, ALL Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo are completely closed.) Once again I needed to get free tickets online because they were only allowing a limited number of people to visit.  Can I just say I am super annoyed about the Natural History Museum.  The last two times we have come it has been closed and that was the one thing I absolutely wanted to do again.  I am glad Lee got to go to the History Museum again though. – Trace

The NMAH is on the National Mall, on the North side, on Constitution Avenue, towards the west end, near the Washington Monument. There’s an entrance on Constitution and an entrance on the Mall side, but the Mall entrance was closed due to Covid. Most places are down to just one entrance. Only a few of the more maze like galleries were closed, the majority of it was open. 

 

 

 

This place is just MASSIVE. There are 3 floors, each broken up by East, Center and West. 750,000 square feet. (Still only HALF the size of the Museum of Natural History!) The exhibitions are wonderful, of course, covering a ton of topics and just packed with “relics”. I spent an entire day there, and several times I experienced over-saturation. There’s just so much. When I was a smoker, I would have stepped outside to take a little break. Without that habit, it’s hard to know when to just find a quiet corner and take a minute. You could easily break this place into four visit of 3 hours each and REALLY experience it. It just gets harder to read the cards and think about things after a while. 

These exhibits are pretty big so taking pictures was hard, but here are some of my favorites. 

 

 

 

 

 

1935 $100,000 Note and 1778 $40 note

 

 

 

16th century Japanese coin

 

This is a 168 pound stone ring from Yap. Yes, it’s money. It’s largely for ceremonies, and some are even larger. Plus it’s fun to say “Yap”

 

The money exhibit had various examples of money going back to the earliest forms. 

 

 

#5 is Nez Perce tribe Wampum. My entire life I have wanted to see Wampum. I had no idea it was a bracelet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Early credit cards

 

 

 

That is a cool statement and completely true – Trace

 

I really, really miss the McDLT.

 

 

This was something I had never seen before, or even heard of. Apparently in the early days of cars, driving them onto a platform and then securing them and rolling them over was how to work on them.

I was amazed to see that they had a Tucker!!! I’ve always wanted to see one of these, and just sort of assumed I never would. 

 

 

George Washington’s document box from 1787

 

Thomas Jefferson’s original desk, of his own design. It was on this very desk that he wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. I think if it weren’t behind glass I would have been unable to resist touching it.

 

 

This is the printing press that Benjamin Franklin used in the beginning of his career when he was learning his trade in the 1720’s in England. He personally identified it while he was still alive.  I love love Ben Franklin.  He is one of my favorite historical figures – Trace

 

 

 

One of my favorite exhibits was “Within These Walls”. A house from just Ipswich, MA that was taken apart and relocated to the museum, and a wonderful series of exhibits telling of the lives of five of the families that owned the house over the course of 200 years. It’s very hard to explain how the house is presented in some places whole, in others a cross section, and in others as “exploded”. Truly remarkable exhibit. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This was just for Tracy, who used to work for Simplex. 

So I worked for Simplex Time Recorder. It has been bought and sold and is currently owned by another company but that is super cool that it was in the museum.  I worked for many years in Gardner, MA- Trace

 

 

The nuclear “football” used during the Clinton administration.

 

Eisenhower’s summer uniform, worn during WWII

White House Secret Service uniforms, designed at Nixon’s request for formal events after he saw the grand and elaborate uniforms worn by palace guards in Europe

 

One of the filing cabinets broken into during the Watergate burglary.  Now that is neat.  You have to appreciate the person who grabbed this and held onto it as a piece of history – Trace

 

The top hat Abraham Lincoln wore the night he was assassinated.

 

George Washington’s bedside chair

 

 

 

 

Like I said, there is so much to see, it was hard to focus and remember to snap pictures, and lots of the pictures I took just didn’t turn out well because there were people in the way, or it was too dark, or the things were just too hard to photograph. 

But I wanted to share some details of the thing that just knocked my socks off. I had no idea it was there, and when I saw the entrance I didn’t really understand what I was looking at until I went inside. It just took my breath away. Apparently I saw this 20 years ago when we went with the kids, but I have no memory of it. I was pretty busy with all those kids.

The Star Spangled Banner – The flag that inspired the national anthem

They don’t allow photography inside, and that really bothered me until I read why, when I got home. 

“The Star-Spangled Banner is an extremely delicate object. While it’s amazing that a flag intended to be used for about five years has survived almost 200, there’s no guarantee that it is going to be around forever. It’s our job as museum professionals to protect this precious object, and the greatest threat to the flag over the long term is light. The flag’s fibers absorb the energy from light, which causes harmful chemical reactions and deterioration. The flag chamber and the viewing area next to it are lit as dimly as possible to minimize the amount of light that hits the surface of the flag. While the short, intense burst of a flash might seem like an insignificant amount of light, it can be very damaging to a textile as fragile as the Star-Spangled Banner. Take that burst of light and multiply it by a thousand and you begin to see the accumulated damage. Three weeks ago we were averaging 30,000 people a day through our doors. If you stood in other popular spaces in the museum, like the pop culture gallery, you would see hundreds of flashes going off in the space of a few minutes. So why can’t you just take a picture with your flash off? Well, in a perfect world you could, but it is too difficult for our security staff to police every possible…ahem…flasher. Many times people with auto-flash on their cameras and phones don’t even know how to turn it off. Preventing everyone from taking a photo is the only realistic way to fulfill our obligation to protect the Star-Spangled Banner while keeping it on view for all to see.”

I really enjoyed this exhibit, it was breathtaking. The stars are two feet across!

Since they don’t allow photography, I am going to use some of the material from the website, so you can see details about the restoration and preservation efforts. 

 

In 1998 teams of museum conservators, curators, and other specialists helped move the flag from its home in the Museum’s Flag Hall into a new conservation laboratory. First, the staff sealed off the work zone in Flag Hall from public access and secured the area. Next, they covered the flag’s back and front.

 

The team then reinforced the display frame and lowered the flag on cantilevered scaffolding.

 

 

The conservation team carefully vacuumed the flag and protected its fragile areas before rolling it onto the tube for transport to the new lab in its special crate.

 

The flag was moved to a new specially-built conservation lab Museum visitors observed the conservation process through a 50-foot (15.2-m)-long glass wall. A moveable bridge (gantry) gave the conservation team a working surface above the flag. The lab was equipped with its own heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system (HVAC) that kept the air free of contaminants and maintained a steady temperature and humidity.

 

The conservation team began treating the flag by removing the linen support backing that was attached in 1914. Over the years, this support had weakened and become soiled.

 

In order to remove the linen backing, the conservators first removed the web of approximately 1.7 million stitches that had held it in place since 1914. They used tweezers to grasp each stitch and small clippers to cut the thread where it pierced the flag. Then, lifting the released end of the stitch, they clipped the other end. They then lifted the clipped stitch away.

 

The conservators painstakingly removed the linen backing. They used small spatulas to separate the linen from the flag, then carefully lifted the linen and removed it in small sections.

 

After removing the linen backing, the conservators had an unobstructed view of the back of the flag for the first time in 85 years. Using a camera attached to a microscope, they documented its condition, including fiber deterioration and stains. Information obtained during this phase helped project curators and conservators decide on next steps in the conservation treatment.

 

Conservators used non-abrasive, dry sponges to gently blot surface dirt from the side of the flag that had been previously covered by the linen. The composition of the dirt was analyzed, providing more detailed information on the flag’s history.

 

Conservators turned the flag over and removed surface dirt from the opposite side, applying the same dry-sponge technique. Most of the dirt removed was made up of minute particles of carbon and oily residues.

 

Before the Star-Spangled Banner came to the Smithsonian, it had been patched and mended many times. Conservators carefully removed sixty of the most harmful repairs in order to relieve stress and allow the fabric to regain its natural shape.

 

After extensive research, conservators devised an effective and safe method for removing embedded dirt from the flag that had remained after the dry-sponge cleaning procedure. They carefully applied a solvent mixture of acetone and water to the flag using a very soft bristle brush with no metal components. Acid-free, conservation-grade blotting paper placed under the flag absorbed the dirt as it was released from the fibers.

 

To document the flag, conservators had it photographed. Because of its size and the confined space of the lab, the flag could not be photographed as a whole. The photographer took seventy-three separate images. Using computer technology, each frame was pieced together, like a puzzle, into a composite image.

 

Before conservators began the final phase of the work, they realigned the flag, taking out folds and distortions that occurred when Amelia Fowler “restored” the flag to a perfect rectangle in 1914. To complete the conservation process, they sewed the flag to Stabiltex, a lightweight polyester material, to support it and keep fragile areas in place. To prepare the flag for exhibition, conservators attached the flag to a heavier, dimensionally-stable underlay.

 

The flag was covered to protect it from dust and debris during the Museum’s renovation. It was then rolled and crated for the move to its new home. Once inside the new chamber, the flag was unrolled on the display table. The underlay was secured under the table with clamps. The table was then tilted to 10 degrees, the angle conservators concluded would provide proper support for the flag while allowing the best view of the flag.

 

 

I know I keep saying this, but if you get the chance, you should go. I feel kind of spoiled, that I was able to go to most places when there were very few people, but a little more crowd wouldn’t ruin the experience. 

I chose not to go here because I have been before but I was tempted.  By the way, looking at the flag completely gave me chills in person and I absolutely remember that moment from our last visit.  I should also mention that these posts Lee is doing only give a flavor of the places he is visiting.  They are so densely packed it would take 10 posts to cover it all.  If you have not been to the Smithsonian’s I highly recommend you go.  They are completely free and more important they are our history.  – Trace

Next time, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery of Art. 

 

 


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