WASHINGTON -- The bright stars have faded to a dirty beige. The broad stripes are covered with patches. And the dawn's early light would only damage the 185-year-old cotton-and-wool banner even more.
But rest assured. As the nation's capital celebrates the Fourth of July, the 34-by-30-foot Star-Spangled Banner is still there, and crowds are flocking to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History to see it.
What they encounter is sometimes surprising: a team of conservators, outfitted in the teal scrubs and white face masks of surgeons, working in a low-lighted, climate-controlled laboratory to preserve the flag that inspired our national anthem.
The conservation room, which has become a popular exhibit over the past five weeks, must be kept free of the toxins that have left the flag's fibers brittle and its colors drained of their original sheen. Textile specialists with binocular magnifiers are snipping away at 1.7 million linen threads that were sewn to the flag's underside in 1914 in an earlier preservation effort.
It's far from the "rockets' red glare ... bombs bursting in air" drama witnessed by Francis Scott Key. Yet the flag that withstood the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814 and moved Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner" continues to inspire feelings of patriotism -- even in the decrepit and prostrate state it will be in until the task is completed in 2002.
"Sure it's ugly, but it's not the beauty of the cloth that matters," said Anthony Huff of Louisville, Ky., who, together with his two children, visited the exhibit this week."The beauty lies in what it represents."
For the Huffs, the chance to view the $18 million restoration project in action was not merely first on their list of must-see attractions. It was the main reason they decided to trek to Washington this summer.
"We wanted to spend the last Fourth of July of the millennium in Washington, D.C., and I wanted my kids to see this more than anything," Huff said. "When you bring up your kids with the historical values of this country, it's important to put them in touch with that history."
Eleven-year-old Matthew Huff, watching the restoration process through the 50-foot-long observation window, said he had achieved something of an epiphany.
"Before, I didn't understand how someone could be inspired enough to write about a flag," Matthew said. "Now, even if I'm not seeing it during a battle, I think I understand. It's so big and so old, but it reminds me how great our country is."
The Huffs are among the estimated 150 to 300 people who have visited the exhibit every half-hour since it first opened over Memorial Day weekend. The project's conservators and curators say they are delighted that the exhibit is teaching visitors not only about the history of the flag; it is also bringing to life the unglamorous task of historic preservation.
"It's a very large project for a number of reasons -- not just the size of the artifact," says Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss, the chief conservator. "It also has a large scope in that it's trying to teach people about the kind of work conservators do, why what they do is important, and why their work takes so long to do."
The work is occurring in a conservation laboratory that, with its hospital-white walls, looks very much like a giant operating room. Young and old alike press noses against the glass and marvel at the surprising vastness of the flag.
A five-minute video explains how the flag, which weighs 150 pounds, was protected and transported from its previous home, in the museum's Flag Hall, to the aluminum gantry on the other side of the reinforced glass.
A replica of a portion of the flag hangs nearby behind Plexiglas. Through a star-shaped cutout, visitors can touch re-created cloth samples of the 26-inch-wide stars and two-foot-wide stripes.
And a series of old photographs, diary entries and 19th-century artifacts help trace the history of the Star-Spangled Banner, which was commissioned by the Army in 1813 from Mary Pickersgill, a Baltimore flag maker, for $405.90. The flag later spent nearly a century as a family heirloom before being donated to the Smithsonian in 1912.
"I worked so close to the flag for so long that it didn't occur to me that other people would be that interested in it," says Lonn Taylor, a historian who curated the exhibit. "But every time I walk in there, I'm struck by the feelings of reverence and emotion I see. Families get quiet, and they draw closer together."
Come 2002, the fully preserved flag will be sealed in a case filled with inert gas and moved to a permanent space in the museum. The red, white and blue flag, Thomassen-Krauss cautions, will never look as it did in 1814. Rather, the museum's goal is to make it cleaner, stronger and better prepared to withstand the next millennium.
They will also leave it partially damaged. Part of the point of the project is to retain the scratches that have become part of the flag's history: the missing star that a vandal presumably stole; the gashes left when Fort McHenry veterans tore off about 8 feet of the flag for personal souvenirs; the unfinished "A" where Louisa Armistead tried to immortalize her husband -- who led the troops against the British and whose family owned the flag all those years; and the 11 patched-up bullet holes.
Anthony Huff, of course, doesn't plan on missing the permanent exhibit, either.
"We'll be there," he says.
Pub Date: 7/03/99