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Major renovations to Museum of American History underway

A rendering of the American Enterprise exhibition in the \'Mars Hall of American Business.\' (Courtesy the Smithsonian Institute)

WASHINGTON — The west wing of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is undergoing a major facelift. A peek inside reveals that the changes will bring new ways for visitors to learn and enjoy history.

“Museums are constantly inventing themselves and trying to understand what to do,” says John Gray, director of the National Museum of American History. “Visitors expectations are profoundly different than they were when the building opened 50 years ago,” Gray says.

All three floors of the 120,000 square foot wing are under construction. Right now the cement floors are dusty, construction materials are piled high and walls are unfinished.

“We’ve literally had to gut all of this and everything is brand new,” Gray says.

There are signs of progress. Panoramic windows are being added on all three floors, opening westward vistas of the National Mall including the Washington Monument and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is also currently under construction and scheduled to open in 2015.

The history museum will become much more interactive once the renovations are complete. The plans call for a laboratory for exploring invention, an education center, performance stages including an acoustically perfect music hall and a conference center.

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Besides music and theater programs, the renovations include a full demonstration kitchen. (Courtesy the Smithsonian Institute)

“Throughout the galleries there’ll be an enormous amount of interactivity,” Gray says.

Anyone who has visited the Smithsonian museum knows there are treasures in America’s attic – Dorothy’s ruby red slippers, Abe Lincoln’s top hat and Lewis and Clark’s compass. But today’s visitors want more than objects in glass cases.

“Through media and interactivity we can create a more dynamic story around objects,” Gray says.

The renovated first floor of the West Wing, scheduled to open July 4, 2015, will house three new exhibits – the Smithsonian’s first ever-devoted to business history, the “Mars Hall of American Business;” The “Lemelson Hall of Invention” and the “Gallery of Numismatic History”.

The second floor of the West Wing, devoted to democracy and the way America came together, its people and its government is scheduled to open in 2016. It will include a live performance space called “Liberty Plaza.”

The third floor is focused on culture and how it’s integrated into the American identity. It will feature the “Hall of Music,” performance space for the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society and the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra. It’s scheduled to open in 2017.

Costs for the renovations and exhibits total $158 million dollars — $58 million in federal funds, $100 million from private sources.

In the future, extensive renovations will be made the building’s east wing.

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