Fort McHenry banner now showing wear and tear Experts ready to rescue flag that inspired anthem

November 23, 1996|By Robert Gee | Robert Gee,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

WASHINGTON -- What began rather modestly as 400 yards of English wool, strewn on the floor of Mary Pickersgill's house at Pratt and Albemarle streets in Baltimore, grew up into a treasured icon.

But now the Star Spangled Banner -- the flag, not the national anthem -- is falling into disrepair.

This week, about 50 historians, textile experts and museum curators are meeting here to recommend ways to preserve the flag.

The enemies: airborne clothing fibers, bits of dead skin, shifts in light and humidity.

The enormous hand-sewn banner -- 34 by 30 feet, with each star spanning 2 feet from tip to tip -- that was so gallantly streaming over Fort McHenry as the British bombarded Baltimore during the War of 1812, inspired Francis Scott Key to write what became the national anthem.

Since 1963, the tattered and frayed flag, with 15 stars and 15 stripes, has hung in the entrance hall of the National Museum of American History in Washington. But 183 years after it was hoisted over Baltimore's Inner Harbor, the flag may be disintegrating.

Having completed a yearlong study of seasonal changes and the effects of light and heat on the aging relic, the museum is turning over its findings to an outside panel of experts to determine how to extend the flag's life span.

Most of all, "time is its enemy," said Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss, textile conservator for the museum.

"We're going to look at ways to mitigate all of the agents."

Each day, thousands of tourists visiting the museum stand before the imposing flag, which fills the three-story space. In peak summer days, up to 17,000 people visit.

"The whole thrust of the conference is to [find ways] to preserve the flag so that, in fact, it can be displayed in a way that future generations can have access to it," said Dennis O'Connor, the Smithsonian's provost.

It is too early, officials said, to say whether the flag may be moved to a section of the museum less exposed to outside elements or simply housed behind an opaque screen in the foyer, as it was for several years. Two years ago, the cables holding a protective screen for the flag broke.

The Smithsonian hopes to produce a timetable for preservation by early next year and begin fund-raising for the effort soon after.

It hopes to finish the preservation work by 2000.

Pub Date: 11/23/96

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