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National Gallery Of Art And A Few Smithsonian Museums Have Reopened In D.C.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The National Mall in Washington, D.C., took a step closer to normalcy today. Four Smithsonian museums and the National Gallery of Art reopened to the public. Millions of people visit the free museums in a typical year to see their collections of important objects from American history and culture. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has more.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: As soon as free passes to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture were available, Allyson Carpenter was ready.

ALLYSON CARPENTER: And I called. I had them on the phone. I had them on the internet. And so I just wanted to make sure I was going to get passes 'cause I've been through this before.

BLAIR: But her grandmother, Gwen Holloway, had not. She's visiting from East Lake, Ohio, and says she's wanted to see the museum since it opened four and a half years ago.

GWEN HOLLOWAY: I've just been excited to see what they have done and how they have displayed it because it's our culture. It's the African American culture. It's where we came from into where we are now.

BLAIR: From the horrors of the middle passage to the present day, the collection includes a slave cabin from a 19th century plantation, Muhammad Ali's boxing headgear and Chuck Berry's red Cadillac. New items include the ivory coat worn by actress Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope on the TV show "Scandal." The other Smithsonian museums opening today are the American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Renwick Gallery.

LONNIE BUNCH: I can't wait to walk into the museums and see the crowds again.

BLAIR: Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch says people need these museums right now.

BUNCH: The Smithsonian provides the opportunity to contextualize the things we're dealing with today in our lives.

BLAIR: Bunch says staff at the museums learned a lot about how to stay COVID-safe when some of them were able to reopen for six months last July.

BUNCH: By opening earlier, we actually were able to test everything. We know exactly the number of people we need for security, for maintenance. So in some ways, this is not a shakedown cruise. This is the actual cruise.

BLAIR: A cruise with a different schedule. In normal times, the Smithsonian is open every day of the year except Christmas. During this reopening phase, some museums will only open five days a week with reduced hours.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Stay as a group throughout your journey.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: If you need to use the bathroom, just try to stick together.

BLAIR: Visitors entering the African American History and Culture Museum were told by staff to social distance and keep their masks on. Before she and her grandmother went in, Allyson Carpenter said she expects the experience will be different this time around.

CARPENTER: One of my favorite parts about this museum is the community. You know, it's not just the exhibits. It's the people who are walking around and watching and looking and interacting with people who have been a part of history, right? Like, I was there, and I had a professor who was a part of the civil rights movement, and they were explaining their place in it. And I just worry with the social distancing that people will be less, you know, communicative, and then we won't really be able to share stories the way that we have before. But the exhibits, they speak for themselves. So I'm not too worried, but I will miss that community.

BLAIR: Carpenter says last summer she and her family were part of the Black Lives Matter protests in D.C. not too far from the museum. She sees a connection between those protests and a building that stands for resilience.

CARPENTER: This past summer was really hard. But we look over here, and we just remember that the struggle continues, but so do our victories and that, you know, what we're doing is just another chapter in our history.

HOLLOWAY: I agree 100%. I agree with everything she said.

CARPENTER: She taught me that.

BLAIR: The Smithsonian Museums of American History, the American Indian and the National Zoo will open May 21. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.