Image: Colin Powell
Jacquelyn Martin  /  AP
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell read the Gettysburg Address on opening day at the National Museum of American History after the completion of renovations.
updated 11/21/2008 3:04:57 PM ET 2008-11-21T20:04:57

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 General 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” was penned in 1814. On Friday and Saturday nights, historical images will be projected onto the building’s facade.

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 was already 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 Miami and spent several minutes getting the right snapshot of Obama’s picture.

But her goal for the day lay elsewhere.

Video: America’s wackiest museums “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.”

An actress portraying Dorothy in a national tour of “The Wizard of Oz” musical — playing Dec. 2-7 in Washington’s Warner Theatre — posed for photos with guests near the slippers exhibit. She later sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in the museum lobby.

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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.

Scott and Maurlo Parker, who live on Capitol Hill, brought their two young children to see the new display of the Star-Spangled Banner.

“We’ve got to do the patriotic stuff since we live here,” Maurlo Parker said. In fact, they named their 8-week-old son after one of the presidents — James Madison Parker — and their 16-month-old daughter is Ellen Virginia Parker.

“He’s very patriotic,” Maurlo Parker said of her husband, who works in Congress. She said the flag exhibit was “beautiful.”

“It’s amazing,” she said. “We kind of watched them do the reconstruction, so it was neat to see how it’s all come together.”

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