Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History reopens

WASHINGTON (AP) – George and Martha Washington, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz and other costumed characters greeted thousands of visitors Friday as the National Museum of American History reopened after a two-year, $85 million renovation.

Former Secretary of State and retired Army Gen. Colin Powell read President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to a crowd of at least 200 people on the museum’s steps before the doors opened.

“It is the 19th of November, 1863,” Powell said after the blare of horns announced the start of the famous speech. “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Powell’s Army uniform hangs in the museum’s gallery on military history.

The museum opens “a new era of education and inspiration,” Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough said. “We aspire to tell the story of America and of Americans to ourselves and to the world.”

The Children’s Chorus of Washington sang the national anthem, the crowd waved small American flags, and many wore red, white and blue top hats.

The museum opened a three-day festival with the firing of a cannon from the era when The Star-Spangled Banner poem was written in 1814. Set to the British tune To Anacreon in Heaven, the poem became the U.S. national anthem.

Inside, visitors found favorite exhibits, such as Kermit the Frog, and a gallery devoted to the American presidency, where President-elect Barack Obama’s picture already has been added to a timeline of presidents. Several people gathered around the small photo to take pictures with their cell phone cameras.

“He’s already on here! It’s exciting,” said Amelia Castelli, 26, who was visiting from Florida and spent several minutes getting the right snapshot of Obama’s picture.

Her goal for the day lay elsewhere.

“What I wanted to see were Dorothy’s ruby red slippers,” Castelli said. “That’s the only thing I really remember from being here years ago.”

Museum officials plan to have costumed historic characters on hand every weekend and daily during the busy summer months. George Washington greeted many children on the opening day, teaching them to bow “as we do in Virginia,” he said, rather than shake hands.

Sometimes called America’s attic, the Smithsonian is a collection of more than one dozen museums, including the National Museum of American History, plus the National Zoo. It resulted from a bequest of Englishman James Smithson, a scientist who died in 1832. His will said, without explanation, that the money should be used to build in Washington “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” He had never been to the United States.

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