National treasures -- paper and stone -- must be preserved

August 04, 1998|By Dennis Fiori

THE WHITE House Millennium Program, a $150 million initiative to encourage public and private funding of preservation projects, has brought welcome attention to this most pressing need.

The Millennium Program's council requested that the Maryland Historical Society transport Francis Scott Key's original draft of the national anthem to Fort McHenry for its July 13 conference. The request to move this fragile document came at an opportune time since we had begun the process of reviewing conservation issues concerning it. We also considered the council's meeting here a rare opportunity to call attention to the need to preserve our nation's artifacts.

Public-private partners

The Millennium Program underscores the fact that such preservation efforts have typically involved public-private partnerships, with local involvement providing context and meaning. The saga of the Key manuscript is a case in point. When the document came up for sale in 1907, a 12-year-old girl provided the impetus for philanthropist Henry Walters to purchase it.

"It was born in Baltimore, and ought to stay here," she wrote him. The Walters Art Gallery, believing the Maryland Historical Society to be the appropriate repository for the document, allowed us to purchase it at cost in 1953 with funds provided by May McShane (Mrs. Thomas Courtney) Jenkins, in memory of her late husband's mother.

Though considered to be one of the top 10 pieces of Americana on paper, "The Star Spangled Banner," is also a metaphor for all the valuable, meaningful and irreplaceable documents in our care. Of course, not all documents possess the same patriotic significance as Key's poem. But if we see America only through its "greatest hits," we won't get a sense of the diversity and breadth of our collective experience.

Providing context

Connecting artifacts, buildings, monuments and documents is crucial to a complete and meaningful interpretation of history. It is essential to preserve all of the threads that make up the fabric of American life. Diaries, letters and other documents provide context for the objects, buildings and monuments themselves, and a holistic picture of people, eras and events.

However, unlike artifacts and structures, manuscripts cannot be repaired or enhanced -- once the ink has faded or the paper decayed, there is no way to bring it back, and a piece of history is gone forever. When one considers the conservation effort and expense of preserving "The Star Spangled Banner" over the years -- and that there are another 4 million manuscripts in the historical society's collection alone -- the importance of ensuring the survival of these historical documents into the next millennium becomes more clear.

To comprehend the whole, we have to protect all of these monuments to the past -- paper and buildings -- that tell us who we are as a democracy and a people.

Dennis Fiori is director of the Maryland Historical Society.

Pub Date: 8/04/98

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