Smithsonian Completes Star-Spangled Banner Conservation Treatment

National Museum of American History to build state-of-the-art flag gallery as part of major building renovations
April 11, 2006
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History announced today that the multi-year conservation treatment of the almost 200-year-old Star-Spangled Banner, the flag that inspired the national anthem, was recently completed. “We are pleased to announce the successful completion of the conservation treatment of this important flag which is a tangible reminder of the early days of this nation when its survival was by no means assured,” said Brent D. Glass, director of the National Museum of American History. “The survival of this flag for nearly 200 years is a visible testimony to the strength and perseverance of this nation and we hope that it will inspire many more generations to come.” In the future, the Star-Spangled Banner will be displayed in a specially constructed, climate-controlled room at the heart of the museum. Visitors will be able to view a side of the flag that was previously obscured by the linen backing, revealing its true colors. The flag will be displayed according to U.S. flag code and at a horizontal orientation and at an angle not to exceed 10 degrees of elevation. Light levels will be low to protect the flag, but dramatic to evoke an atmosphere of the “dawn’s early light,” similar to what Francis Scott Key experienced on the morning of Sept. 14, 1814, when he was inspired to pen his famous poem. The Star-Spangled Banner Preservation Project is made possible by major support from Polo Ralph Lauren. Generous support is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts, the U.S. States Congress, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The conservation project is part of Save America’s Treasures, a public-private project of the White House Millennium Council and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The conservation treatment began in late 1998 when the flag was carefully lowered from the wall where it had been displayed since the museum opened in 1964. Before the flag was rolled up and moved into the specially built conservation laboratory on the same floor, the conservation team examined and prepared the flag for the treatment. Once inside the environmentally controlled lab, conservators clipped approximately 1.7 million stitches and cautiously removed a linen backing that had secured the banner since 1914, exposing a side of the flag not seen since 1873 when a canvas backing was attached. Then conservators used non-abrasive cosmetic sponges to lift harmful materials off the face of the flag. Next the flag was lightly brushed with an acetone-water mixture to remove the soils that were embedded in the fibers. In order to stabilize the flag for future display, the conservation team realigned it to its true shape and sewed on a light-weight, sheer stabiltex backing. The goal of the treatment was not to restore the flag to look like new. Rather, the aim of the conservation work was to clean and stabilize the fragile fabric while preserving the marks of two centuries and the many hands that cared for it. The laboratory was outfitted with floor to ceiling windows and the treatment was performed in full view of the public to allow visitors to see the nation’s symbol and to learn about textile conservation. More than 12 million people have seen the flag’s conservation since the lab opened to the public in late May 1999. The construction of the new Star-Spangled Banner gallery will be coordinated with a major renovation of the museum itself. The museum has contracted with the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP and Turner Construction for the overall planning, design and construction. New York-based design firm Chermayeff & Geismar Inc. will work with SOM on the new permanent gallery for the Star-Spangled Banner. The 15-star, 15-stripe garrison flag, known as the Star-Spangled Banner, was made in 1813 by Mary Pickersgill as commissioned by Lt. Col. George Armistead to fly over Fort McHenry. This flag was flown on Sept. 13 and 14, 1814 during the War of 1812 in the Battle of Baltimore. It was taken down during the rainy night and replaced with a smaller storm flag. On the morning of Sept. 14 the banner was hoisted again to the tune of “Yankee Doodle” as the British ships retreated. “By the dawn’s early light,” lawyer Francis Scott Key, who was anxiously awaiting the outcome of the battle on an American ship, saw the flag flying over the fort and was inspired to write the patriotic and defiant words of a poem that became a rallying cry for Americans who had fought their first war as a united nation. The poem was set to music and the song became the national anthem in 1931. The flag belonged to Armistead’s family for many years. His grandson, Eben Appleton, gave the flag to the Smithsonian in 1907 so that it would be preserved and displayed for the public. First a loan, Appleton made his donation a permanent gift to the nation in 1912. The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage through exhibitions and public programs about social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. Documenting the American experience from Colonial times to the present, the museum looks at growth and change in the United States. The museum, located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except Dec. 25. From May 26 to Sept. 4, the museum will remain open until 6:30 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, visit the museum’s Web site at http://americanhistory.si.edu or call (202) 633-1000, (202) 357-1729 (TTY).