Smithsonian's Star-Spangled Banner to Undergo Three-Year Conservation

February 21, 1999
The flag that flew over Baltimore's Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 and inspired the words of the National Anthem is undergoing a three-year conservation. 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 December 1, the three-story-high flag was removed from its current display and laid flat on a platform in the National Museum of American History's Flag Hall. It was thoroughly examined and conservators began to devise a full treatment plan. The Star-Spangled Banner was then carefully rolled and crated in January and moved into the specially constructed conservation lab near Flag Hall on the museum's second floor. Throughout the three-year project visitors can follow the progress of the conservation treatment through floor-to-ceiling windows in the lab and can learn more about the process and the flag's history in the adjoining "Preserving the Star-Spangled Banner: The Flag that Inspired the National Anthem" exhibition. The lab nad exhibition will open to the public this Spring. The museum is currently developing plans for a re-exhibition of the banner in 2002. "The Star-Spangled Banner flag is a national icon that must be preserved for future generations," said Spencer Crew, director of the National Museum of American History. "We began planning the project with two goals in mind -- to preserve the flag by preventing further deterioration, and to keep it on view for the public. By building a protected conservation laboratory for the treatment with viewing windows, the museum will accomplish these goals." The highlight of the flag preservation project occurred on July 13, 1998, when President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton launched their "Save America's Treasures" tour, in front of the Star-Spangled Banner. Mrs. Clinton announced a generous contribution from Polo Ralph Lauren Corporation, which made a $10 million contribution to the flag's conservation through the "Save America's Treasures" program. Polo Ralph Lauren also committed an additional $3 million for a public awareness campaign about the "Save America's Treasures" project, initiated by the White House Millennium Council and administered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Pew Charitable Trusts pledged $5 million to the flag preservation project in February 1998 with a stipulation that the grant be matched by $5 million in federal funds. Other organizations that have contributed to the flag include the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Brown Foundation, Susan and Elihu Rose Foundation, Warren Winiarski and family, Ivan and Nina Selin Family Foundation, Montgomery Watson Americas, Robert Hemphill, Abell-Hanger Foundation, Rockwell Fund, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Ladies Auxiliary to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The overall goal for the Star-Spangled Banner Preservation Project is $18 million. The flag take-down, construction of a conservation lab and temporary exhibit, and the three-year conservation treatment alone will cost about $5.5 million. The complete renovation of Flag Hall and installation of the new Star-Spangled Banner exhibition will cost an estimated $6.5 million. Remaining funds will be used for nationwide educational programs and an endowment for the future care of the flag. Description of the Star-Spangled Banner The flag is nearly 3 stories high, measuring 30 feet 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 feet 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 from 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. 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 museum's senior conservator. "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, which is why conservators had dimmed the lights in Flag Hall and darkened the museum's nearby entrance doors. Exposure to these potentially damaging elements will be virtually eliminated in the new exhibition because the flag will be in a climate-controlled case. The flag has undergone two major conservation treatments in the past. The first time in 1914, when the Smithsonian hired a flag restorer and seamstresses to sew a backing onto the flag, and another 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 one to date, began four years ago when the cables that controlled the Star-Spangled Banner's opaque covering malfunctioned. After that, ideas that had been discussed at the museum for the "big conservation" began to take shape. A conference with more than 50 conservators, historians and museum experts was convened at the Museum of American History in fall 1996 to discuss the flag preservation project. Many of the ideas discussed at that meeting have been incorporated into the plan. 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. This flag 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 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, although it was not officially given that title until 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. The flag was cleaned and treated several times over the years and supported with a heavy linen backing that was sewn on (with about 1.7 million stitches) by a team of seamstresses in 1914. During World War II the flag, along with a number of other Smithsonian artifacts, was removed from the museums in 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 vast new museum. Educational programs A variety of programs are planned for the three-year preservation period. One activity for children, in the museum's Hands-on-Science Center, will allow young people to touch and examine fabric similar to that of the Star-Spangled Banner. The History Channel broadcast an original one-hour documentary about the Star-Spangled Banner and the preservation project on Dec. 3 and is conducting nation-wide education outreach. The program and educational material was produced in collaboration with conservators and historians at the National Museum of American History. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- 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 or call (202) 633-1000.