Star-Spangled Banner "Too Fragile To Hang Again"

Andrew Jones
National Geographic News
July 3, 2001

Conservators working to preserve the Star-Spangled Banner, the 188-year-old cultural artifact that inspired the words of America's national anthem, say that the threadbare and fragile flag will never hang again.

The increasingly fragile flag has already sustained much mechanical damage (frayed edges, splits, tears, and losses) from its commissioned time at Fort McHenry and from almost two centuries of exposure to ultraviolet light, pollution, and changes in humidity and temperature. The last year of conservation work on the American banner has revealed that past restoration efforts and 34 years of vertical display have distorted the true shape of the flag.

"In order to balance the safety of this American artifact with the peoples desire to view the flag, we are looking at displaying it at no more than a 30-degree angle," said Spencer R. Crew, director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.

The iconic banner hung vertically in Flag Hall at the Museum of American History, on Washington D.C.'s National Mall, from 1964, when the museum opened, until December 1998 when it was taken down and moved to a specially constructed conservation lab in the museum.

The flag was flown over Fort McHenry during the British bombardment on September 13 and 14, 1814. A British witness described it being hoisted on the morning of September 14 as the British ships retreated from Baltimore harbor. At about 7 a.m., Francis Scott Key, a Washington lawyer who had been detained on one of those ships, saw the flag flying over the fort and was inspired to write the patriotic and defiant words of the poem that became the U.S. national anthem.

Planning for the current conservation project—the most comprehensive to date—began in 1996, when the museum convened a conference with a group of 50 international experts to discuss the preservation of the damaged and timeworn flag.

A 2,000-square-foot (186-square-meter) state-of-the-art conservation laboratory now houses the flag on a 35-foot (11-meter) cylinder, similar to a grossly over-sized paper towel holder. The cylinder rolls out onto a table large enough to hold the entire 1,020-square-foot (95-square-meter) banner. The preservation exhibit brings the banner closer to visitors than ever before through a fifty-foot-long, floor-to-ceiling glass viewing wall.

"This is the first dedicated space in the building that was ever built to be able to allow conservation processes to be done in public view," said Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss, chief conservator of the Star-Spangled Banner Preservation Project.

"Today, millions of flags are flying across the United States," said Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small. "Everything those flags stand for is symbolized in one flag—the Star-Spangled Banner. That's why the preservation of this national treasure has been a priority for the Smithsonian."

The goal of the museum is to clean and stabilize the flag in order to preserve its history. However, it will not be restoring it to look like new.

Millions of Stitches

In 1914 the Smithsonian retained Amelia Fowler, a professional flag restorer, to replace the flag's canvas backing with a new linen backing, using a stitching method that she had perfected and patented. A team of needlewomen working in the Smithsonian Castle sewed the flag to its new backing with approximately 1.7 million stitches.

Continued on Next Page >>


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