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.

Soon after the recent preservation efforts began, it became evident that the linen backing was soiled, worn and no longer providing the appropriate support.

"The stitches caused a lot of distortion in the fabric and left a pattern of stitching both from physically moving the yarns around and also from soiling," noted Thomassen-Krauss. "Those kinds of damages are cumulative over time. Everything that sits on the surface of the flag has the potential for cutting into the surface and abrading it. So the less material we put on the surface the better off the flag will be."

Once the flag was moved into the lab, the conservators slowly unrolled the banner while carefully clipping the approximately 1.7 million stitches that attached the linen to the flag. The conservators, wearing surgical scrubs and using special tools, worked either from the edge of the roller tube or accessed hard-to-reach areas from a 32-foot wide movable gantry, or platform, that is suspended four inches above the flag.

Once the colossal, year-long task of removing the stitching from the flag was completed, the team prepared the flag for the actual removal of the linen backing. The face of the flag was covered with "marquisette", a gauze-like open-weave polyester fabric that is non-abrasive and provides lightweight support. The flag was then rolled onto the cylinder again and unrolled with the linen side up. Then conservators carefully separated the linen from the flag exposing a side of the Star-Spangled Banner not seen by the public since 1873.

The Future of the Flag

Future plans for the flag include the addition of a temporary support which will sandwich the flag between two layers to support it during the cleaning phase of the project.

"What we are looking to do this time as opposed to the linen that was put on in 1914 is use a really lightweight fabric that's hopefully sheer enough to be able to see both sides of the flag," said Thomassen-Krauss. "This lightweight fabric will help to preserve the nature of the flag as a two-sided artifact. When it was on the very heavy linen it was hard to imagine that the flag was ever light enough to be flown. The old linen caused it not to drape and not move the way a flag would normally move. With the new fabric, we are looking to be able to recapture all of that essence of it being a flag."

All phases of the conservation are being carefully documented and photographed. Notes, along with before-and-after treatment photographs, will provide much information about the condition of the banner.

The conservation of the Star-Spangled Banner is scheduled to be completed by summer 2002.

The Star-Spangled Banner Preservation Project, which includes the conservation treatment and state-of-the-art laboratory, research studies, educational outreach, a new display of the flag, and an endowment for its future care, is budgeted at U.S. $18 million. The project is being funded by Polo Ralph Lauren, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the United States Congress, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.


Use this National Geographic News article in your classroom with the Xpeditions lesson plan: Why Do We Have an American Flag?

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