WASHINGTON – Security will be extra tight as tens of thousands of visitors descend on the National Mall on Saturday for the opening of the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture.
President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are expected to attend, along with former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura. Obama, the nation's first black president, attended the museum’s groundbreaking in February 2012 and will deliver remarks at the opening ceremony, which kicks off at 10:30 a.m.
The long-awaited museum traces the history of African Americans from slavery to today. Thousands of people have attended preview tours of the museum in recent weeks, including a Sept. 17 open house for charter members and a reception that evening for donors. Obama toured the museum last Wednesday with his family.
Federal and local law enforcement agencies are stepping up security for Saturday's ceremony, including closing streets and screening visitors.
“It’s a big event,’’ said Becky Haberacker, a spokeswoman for the museum. “It’s a big event here in the city of Washington and, of course, because the president is attending that always adds more security ... We’re all working toward making sure this event is very safe and enjoyable for everybody coming.’’
The National Park Service is leading security efforts in coordination with the Secret Service and Washington's Metropolitan Police Department.
On Saturday, most streets near the museum, including Constitution Avenue between 12th Street and 18th Street, will be closed to traffic and parking, including buses. Visitors are urged to take the metro. The closest stops are Smithsonian and Federal Triangle.
Visitors also will have to go through screening at the corners of 17th St. N.W. and Constitution Avenue NW, and 17th St. SW and Independence Avenue SW.
Museum officials caution visitors to pack lightly. Banned items include coolers, weapons, bikes, chairs, folding tables, balloons and glass containers.
“The less stuff you’re bringing through, the faster you’ll go through security, the easier it will be to make it through the checkpoints,’’ Haberacker said.
The general public will be able to view the ceremony via jumbotron screens across the street from the museum on the grounds of the Washington Monument.
Visitors with passes for specific entry times can enter the museum after 1 p.m. Timed passes, which are free, are no longer available for September and October.
Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s director, said staffers were still putting finishing touches on the museum last week.
“But basically the biggest challenge is preparing for the crowds,’’ he said. “The enthusiasm has been overwhelming … That is what of sort of keeps me up now — making sure that we can give the visitor the best experience when we open.’’
The most recent opening ceremony for a Smithsonian museum was for the National Museum of the American Indian in 2004. The American Indian museum also hosted a dedication on the mall and a festival.
Congress approved the African American museum project in 2003, but officials had to raise money, hire staff and build a collection. The museum now has more than 40,000 artifacts and items.
Haberacker said museum staff is “very excited" about Saturday's ceremony.
“President Bush signed legislation in 2003 and so it has been almost 13 years in the making," she said. "It’s very exciting for the Smithsonian and for the city of Washington and for the country as a whole."
More than 7,000 people have been invited to Saturday's opening ceremony, including civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., other members of Congress, U.S. Supreme Court justices and donors.
Thousands of others are expected to attend the ceremony and a three-day festival hosted by the museum. The festival, which starts Friday, features musicians, dance performances and spoken-word performances. Security for the festival won’t be as tight, but visitors will face some road closures beginning Friday night through Sunday.
Contact Deborah Barfield Berry at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @dberrygannett