Visual Description | The Star-Spangled Banner: The Flag that Inspired the National Anthem

Exhibit Overview

In the center of the museum’s second floor, there is a two-story lobby, overlooked by balconies from the third floor. The entrance to the Star-Spangled Banner exhibition is in this area, across from the National Mall entrance to the museum. It is marked by a silver stylized rendition of an American flag, extending from floor to ceiling on a wall of large-scale rectangular marble panels (like giant marble subway tiles). The exhibition occupies 5,170 square feet in the heart of the museum and is laid out along three sides of a large square. First, you walk up an ascending ramp where sounds of exploding artillery, meant to evoke the War of 1812, play over speakers. Then you enter a much darker hallway to face the Star-Spangled Banner, which is in a large case that makes up the center of the square around which the exhibition takes you. Lastly, you walk down a descending ramp, learning about how the flag was made, and its life after the war of 1812. At the end of this ramp different versions of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” the national anthem of the United States, are played over speakers.


The Star-Spangled Banner 


This flag, raised over Baltimore's Fort McHenry on September 14, 1814, inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner."

  • Maker: Mary Pickersgill, Baltimore, 1813
  • Material: wool bunting with cotton stars 
  • Design: 15 stars and 15 stripes, the official U.S. flag from 1795 to 1818 
  • Size: 30 by 34 feet; originally 30 by 42 feet (one star and other pieces were cut away as patriotic keepsakes in the 1800s)


Verbal Description

As you enter the section of the exhibition where you can face the Star-Spangled Banner, the light levels get much lower to protect the flag’s fabric, and small LED lights on the floor guide the visitor through the very dark space. If you enter the exhibit from the section about the War of 1812, the huge glass case holding the flag will be on your left. The case is enclosed by floor-to-ceiling glass windows and, inside the case, the flag is set on a black background against a black backdrop. Above the flag, on the back wall of the case, the National Anthem is projected on the black background in white block letters. The flag itself is huge in scale, measuring thirty by thirty-four feet. Try walking the length of the case to get a sense of its enormity. The flag was originally thirty by forty-two feet, but one star and other pieces of the flag were cut away in the 1800s as souvenirs. During the flag’s use, the fly edge of the flag got worn and tattered and was repaired, which also accounts for some of the loss from that edge. 

It is made of wool bunting, which is a very loose, open weave wool, with white cotton used for the stars. In addition to the missing pieces, the fabric of the flag looks well-worn, with areas of loss and discoloration from its original red, white, and blue. It is, overall, rectangular in shape and the top left quarter of the flag is blue, with white stars. This area would be called the “canton” area of the flag. The flag originally had fifteen stars, in five rows of three stars each. Every other row of stars is offset, so that the first star of the second row falls between the first two stars of the first row. The last star in the fourth row is completely missing, and the missing section extends into the adjacent stripes. The remaining three quarters of the flag are covered with alternating stripes of red and white. There are fifteen stripes total, and the top and bottom stripes are red. Each stripe is two feet wide. The edges of the flag on the bottom and the visitors’ right-hand side are jagged where pieces have been removed. At the far end of the Star-Spangled Banner’s case, there is a glass panel in front of the viewing window. This panel has a full-size, tactile star, so that you can feel how big a single star on the flag is, and a tactile image of the flag, so that you can understand the design of the flag, and what portions of the flag are currently missing.