You Asked, We Answer: Why can't I take a picture of the Star-Spangled Banner?

By Megan Smith

Cameras are everywhere. I currently have three devices in my purse that I can take a picture with. We love it when our visitors take photos to share with family or spread through their own Flickr, Facebook, and Twitter networks. So it’s understandable that some of you have been asking:

Why don’t we let you take a photograph of the Star-Spangled Banner?

The Star-Spangled Banner Gallery 

The Star-Spangled Banner is an extremely delicate object. While it’s amazing that a flag intended to be used for about five years has survived almost 200, there’s no guarantee that it is going to be around forever. It’s our job as museum professionals to protect this precious object, and the greatest threat to the flag over the long term is light. The flag’s fibers absorb the energy from light, which causes harmful chemical reactions and deterioration. The flag chamber and the viewing area next to it are lit as dimly as possible to minimize the amount of light that hits the surface of the flag.

While the short, intense burst of a flash might seem like an insignificant amount of light, it can be very damaging to a textile as fragile as the Star-Spangled Banner. Take that burst of light and multiply it by a thousand and you begin to see the accumulated damage. Three weeks ago we were averaging 30,000 people a day through our doors. If you stood in other popular spaces in the museum, like the pop culture gallery, you would see hundreds of flashes going off in the space of a few minutes.

So why can’t you just take a picture with your flash off? Well, in a perfect world you could, but it is too difficult for our security staff to police every possible…ahem…flasher. Many times people with auto-flash on their cameras and phones don’t even know how to turn it off. Preventing everyone from taking a photo is the only realistic way to fulfill our obligation to protect the Star-Spangled Banner while keeping it on view for all to see.

We do understand the disappointment many people feel not being able to take a picture of this amazing national treasure. So just for you we’ve uploaded a bunch of images—taken by our fabulous Smithsonian photographers—to our Flickr page. Feel free to download these, even stick them in your vacation slideshow! You’ll be able to share your precious memories of seeing the flag while making sure it’s around for future generations to admire.

Megan Smith is an education specialist at the National Museum of American History.