Smithsonian Announces Preliminary Findings of Star-Spangled Banner Preservation

June 18, 2000
-- First Phase of Conservation and Research on 187-Year-Old Flag complete --
-- Banner May Endure Another 500 Years --
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History reports that on-going research indicates that the flag that inspired the national anthem may survive another 500 to 1,000 years on public display under optimal conditions. The finding is just one of several new discoveries that have been made in the first year of the three-year Star-Spangled Banner Preservation Project, which includes scientific study in the museum’s on-site conservation laboratory and wool research conducted by New Zealand experts in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agriculture Research Service. Preliminary results of the Star-Spangled Banner Wool Research Program show that the 187-year-old flag’s life span may be greatly expanded if the museum stabilizes the banner’s environment by strictly controlling light, humidity and temperature. “A conservative estimate is 500 years, an optimistic estimate is 1,000 years,” said Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss, chief conservator for the project. The Star-Spangled Banner Preservation Project, which includes the specially designed conservation laboratory, research studies, educational outreach, a new exhibition of the flag and an endowment for its future care, will cost about $18 million. The project is made possible by major support from Polo Ralph Lauren. Generous support is also provided by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Congress and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, with special thanks to First Lady Hillary Clinton, the White House Millennium Council and Save America’s Treasures at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In the year since the conservation lab opened (May 1999), the museum’s team of conservators has completed the first step towards the preservation of the 30’ x 34’ banner. This involved carefully clipping and removing approximately 1.7 million stitches that attached a linen support backing to the woolen flag. The backing was stitched on in 1914 when the Smithsonian hired professional flag restorer Amelia Fowler to preserve the then 100-year-old, timeworn Star-Spangled Banner. The linen backing is now worn and soiled and needs to be removed. New Discoveries When the flag hung vertically on display from 1964 to 1998, museum conservators had limited access to the three-story high banner. The nature of the display and the linen backing served to camouflage the true condition of the flag. With the web of stitches removed and the surface of the flag fully exposed for the first time since 1914, conservators have been able to examine and document the condition of the textile. Among their findings:
  • The colors of the flag are actually more vibrant and bright. The color had been obscured by the originally dyed-to-match stitches that had faded with time.
  • A number of previously undocumented patches have been found. Archival records indicated that the flag had 11 patches. With the stitches removed, the museum has found 27 areas that were patched over the years.
  • In some areas of the flag, there is extensive fabric loss and deterioration. In some stripes, more than 60 percent of the original flag material is gone.
  • The 1914 treatment resulted in stretching, bunching and folding the flag to fit it onto a rectangular linen backing. Tension from the stitches damaged the fibers and caused a quilted appearance.
  • Removing the stitches also uncovered a hoist sleeve that is attached to the flag. The rope that hoists a flag up the flagpole runs through this kind of sleeve.
  • Stains have been found which resemble cursive writing and conservators are investigating to determine if these are “ink.” These may be the signatures that Fowler described in her 1914 report.
  • Even though the flag is an extremely fragile textile, wool research shows that with proper treatment and a controlled environment, the flag can be displayed for generations to come.
Next Steps To protect the fragile flag for the next phase of work, conservators have placed a temporary support layer on the face of the flag. This fabric, called “marquisette,” is a gauze-like, open weave polyester, similar to a wedding veil. In July, the conservation team will carefully roll the flag, crate it and then unroll it so that the 1,020 square-foot flag is linen side up. The flag will remain in the crate for about 10 days starting July 6 during routine maintenance of the lab and will not be on view during that time period. The “marquisette” will provide a layer between the surface of the flag and the oversize aluminum work table. Over the next several months, visitors will mostly just see the linen and can watch the painstaking process of separating the backing from the flag. Following the removal of the linen, conservators and researchers will carefully examine the side of the flag that has not been visible to the public since 1873. (Fowler’s treatment replaced a canvas backing stitched on in 1873 that stabilized the flag and prepared it for its first known photograph at the Boston Navy Yard that year.) Following extensive documentation and research, the museum will determine the cleaning options for the various soils that have been found on the surface of the flag. The museum plans to open a new exhibition that will provide a historical context for the Star-Spangled Banner in late 2002. “This exhibition will place the Star-Spangled Banner in a historic and cultural context, tracing its transformation from a battle relic into a treasured national icon,” said Spencer R. Crew, director of the National Museum of American History. “It will connect this banner to the larger story of the American flag in American Life.” Star-Spangled Banner Book In July, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. releases The Star-Spangled Banner: The Flag that Inspired the National Anthem by Lonn Taylor, National Museum of American History historian. Through original research, Taylor traces the flag’s history between the bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814 and its arrival at the Smithsonian, first as a loan in 1907 and then as a permanent gift in 1912. The book will be available in bookstores nationwide. Viewing the Conservation Work The conservation of the Star-Spangled Banner is taking place in public view within a specially designed laboratory that features a 50-foot, floor-to-ceiling glass wall through which visitors can follow the progress of the work. A companion exhibition, titled “Preserving the Star-Spangled Banner: the Flag that Inspired the National Anthem,” provides information about the preservation process and tells the history of the flag. More than 2.5 million people -- almost one out of every two visitors to the museum -- have viewed the flag since the facility opened on May 27, 1999. Note to Editors: --B-roll of the stitches being removed and marquisette applied is available. --Photos, including sections of the flag before and after the stitch removal may be obtained from the NMAH Office of Public Affairs at 202/357-3129. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- The National Museum of American History traces American heritage through exhibitions of social, cultural, scientific and technological history. Collections are displayed in exhibitions that interpret the American experience from Colonial times to the present. The museum is located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except Dec. 25. For more information, visit the museum’s Web site at http://americanhistory.si.edu or call (202) 633-1000.