Smithsonian's Star-Spangled Banner Conservation Laboratory and Exhibition Open at National Museum of American History

May 26, 1999

Smithsonian visitors will be able to follow the progress of the historic conservation of the Star-Spangled Banner and will learn more about the 185-year-old flag's history in a new exhibition opening May 28 at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

For much of the three-year preservation project, the public will be able to see the banner housed inside its glass and chrome conservation laboratory through floor-to-ceiling windows. The customized laboratory will provide the public with its closest look at the 30-by-34-foot wool and cotton flag since it was installed in the museum for the building's opening in 1964. The companion exhibition, "Preserving the Star-Spangled Banner: The Flag that Inspired the National Anthem" provides a look at the conservation process and story of the flag.

"The Star-Spangled Banner is a national icon that must be preserved for future generations," said Spencer Crew, director of the National Museum of American History. "By building a secure conservation laboratory, the museum will provide the public with a unique look into the preservation process while protecting the flag."

One of the key events of the flag preservation project occurred on July 13, 1998, when President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton launched the first Save America's Treasures tour in front of the Star-Spangled Banner. Mrs. Clinton announced a generous contribution from Polo Ralph Lauren which made a $10 million donation to the flag's conservation through Save America's Treasures. Polo Ralph Lauren also committed an additional $3 million for the "Save America's Treasures" public awareness campaign. Save America's Treasures is a public-private parnership between the White House Millennium Council and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Generous support also was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which pledged $5 million; a $3 million congressional appropriation; and additional support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

A national treasure, the Star-Spangled Banner has been on view almost continuously since it came to the Smithsonian Institution in 1907. Despite receiving the best possible care, the flag, already timeworn, has deteriorated further from decades of exposure to light, pollution and temperature fluctuations.

On Dec.1, 1998, the 3-story-high flag was removed from its display in the museum's Flag Hall and laid flat on a platform. It was thoroughly examined and conservators began to devise a full treatment plan. Next, the Star-Spangled Banner was carefully rolled onto a 450-pound cardboard tube, crated and moved into the pressurized, climate-controlled laboratory. As conservators begin to work on the 1,020-square-foot artifact, they will carefully unroll the banner a few feet (and sometimes inches) at a time. It will eventually lay flat on an immense aluminum table over which conservators will work, reaching the flag by sitting or lying on a 35-foot-wide moveable gantry platform that is suspended above the flag.

The full Star-Spangled Banner Preservation Project is expected to cost approximately $18 million. Taking the flag down from the museum wall, construction of the conservation lab and temporary exhibition, and the three-year conservation treatment will cost about $5.5 million. The construction of the lab itself cost more than $1 million. There also will be a new permanent exhibition, set to open in 2002, to coincide with the reinstallation of the Star-Spangled Banner.

Conservation of the Star-Spangled Banner
This project is believed to be one of the largest single textile conservation projects ever to be undertaken by a museum.

"All textiles undergo an aging process when they are exposed to years of ultraviolet light, pollution, and changes in humidity and temperature," said Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss, the chief conservator for the Star-Spangled Banner Project. "Our goal here is to stabilize this flag, not to make it look like new." The flag's fibers have become brittle with age. Exposure to oxygen in the presence of light has changed the chemical nature of the fibers. Light, especially ultraviolet light, is a threat to any textile. That is why light levels in the new conservation lab will be limited. Less than 1 foot -more- candle of light will illuminate the surface of the flag whereas 3 to 4 foot candles will shine on the perimeters to allow visitors to better view the lab. Conservators will use task lights to direct higher levels of light to specific work surfaces.

The flag has undergone two major conservation treatments in the past. The first time in 1914, when the Smithsonian hired flag restorer Amanda Fowler and a team of seamstresses to sew a linen backing onto the flag (with about 1.7 million stitches). The other was in 1982 when a major surface cleaning was undertaken while the flag was on display in the National Museum of American Museum. Planning for the current conservation project, the most comprehensive to date, began four years ago. A conference with more than 50 invited conservators, historians and museum experts was convened at the museum in fall 1996 to discuss the flag preservation project. Many of the ideas discussed at that meeting have been incorporated into the proposed treatment plan.

Description of the Star-Spangled Banner The flag is nearly 3 stories high, measuring 30-by-34 feet. With its heavy linen backing, the flag weighs about 150 pounds. It has 15 stripes and 15 stars, one for each state as mandated by the Congress of 1794. (Some years later, the number of stripes was reduced to 13 to represent each of the original 13 states, and new stars were added for each state that had joined the Union.) The flag originally measured 30-by 42 feet before pieces were removed from the bottom (totaling about 8 feet of fabric). Some records and letters indicate that the pieces were removed to serve as mementos or relics placed in the graves of fallen soldiers who had served at Fort McHenry. Its original size, while massive by today's standards, was customary for 19th-century garrison flags designed to fly from 90-foot-high flagpoles.

History of the Star-Spangled Banner
The flag was made in 1813 by Mary Pickersgill of Philadelphia and her 13-year-old daughter, Caroline, for Lt. Col. George Armistead, who had commissioned the flag to fly over Fort McHenry. The cost was $405.90 for what was then a 50-pound, 30-by-42-foot flag. The Star-Spangled Banner was flown at Fort McHenry on Sept. 13 and 14, 1814. It was taken down at night and replaced with a smaller storm flag. The large flag was hoisted again on the morning of Sept. 14 as the British ships retreated from Baltimore's harbor. Francis Scott Key had been detained on one of those ships. It was about 7 a.m., "by the dawn's early light," that Key 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 gradually attained the status of a national anthem. It was officially given that title in 1931.

The flag belonged to Armistead's family for many years. By 1861, it was kept in the Baltimore home of Armistead's son Christopher Hughes Armistead. After that, it was in the care of Armistead's daughter Georgiana Appleton, who treasured the flag as a symbol of her father's courage at Fort McHenry. In 1876, the flag was sent to Philadelphia to be displayed in the nation's Centennial Exposition, and was returned to the family several months later. In 1907, it came to the Smithsonian where it has been ever since. Its accustomed place for more than five decades was the Arts and Industries Building (then known as the National Museum), the second Smithsonian building to be constructed on the National Mall.

During World War II the flag, along with a number of other Smithsonian artifacts, was removed from Washington, and transported to a safe place. It was away from 1942 to 1944. From 1944 until December 1963, the flag was again displayed in the Arts and Industries Building. In 1963 it was transferred to the National Museum of American History (then known as the National Museum of History and Technology) to become the centerpiece of the new museum.

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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.