WASHINGTON - The Star-Spangled Banner lies like a patient, immobile on an operating table, when the rescue team arrives. Four women dressed in scrubs step across a decontamination mat and, within reach of medical instruments, get to work on the tattered icon.
This is history's operating room. They are the surgeons.
The conservators, as they are known, wear no jewelry. Their hair does not fall loose. They have no buttons that snag, no zippers that catch. Pens are outlawed, buckles are banned, long nails are taboo. Around the 189-year-old banner, says Amy Venzke, one of the conservators, "You even learn not to sneeze."
The flag that flew over Baltimore's Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 and that is widely believed to have inspired Francis Scott Key to write the national anthem is in the last stages of an $18 million preservation project at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. This is the mother flag, the first to make the stars and stripes a symbol of patriotism, the one that popularized the image blazing everywhere today.
By next year, when the four-year project is set to end, 7 million tourists will have watched the conservation team through a window built into the side of the museum's flag preservation lab. It is an oddly public assignment for a group of women who are used to toiling behind the scenes, not in the middle of a museum display case.
"Initially, you're very aware of what you're doing because people are watching you," says Venzke, who, like the other team members, is a 30-something history junkie. "If your nose itches, you feel like you can't even scratch it."
The real object of attention, of course, is the flag that flew in the dawn after the British bombardment in 1814. Some tourists salute or place a hand over their heart. Others look on tearfully. Some wave. A few pound on the window.
Once, someone banged on the glass just as the chief conservator, Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss, had maneuvered her micro-tweezers over the fabric. Startled, she pricked her finger. Her only thought: Don't bleed on the flag. (She didn't.)
In the lab, the women work inch by inch, sometimes fiber by fiber. After removing a linen backing affixed with 1.7 million stitches - the work of a 1914 conservation effort - the conservators are now charting the stains and mends in the stars and stripes. They are also analyzing the brightness of the flag's colors to determine whether the fabric needs more cleaning.
The core of the team has remained the same since the project began: Venzke, an American; two Canadians, Tracy Satin and Diane Kessler; and Lena Engquist Sandstedt, a conservator on loan from Sweden's national flag collection.
Each day, the women work atop a mattress-covered steel bridge suspended inches above the banner. The 5,300-pound bridge takes at least three conservators to move.
The job is physically taxing: The women work for 45 minutes then rest for 15, to guard against injuries brought on by their awkward poses over the flag: arms outstretched, head stationary, neck muscles tensed.
"It can be like running a marathon," says Thomassen-Krauss, also an American.
Working behind soundproof glass, with a white-noise machine whirring, the women spend most of the time rapt in concentration, fixed on the tiny area of the flag in front of them.
The work can be tedious. To break the monotony, the women sometimes listen to music (classical, they swear). Occasionally, they peer at the visitors. But there are few winks or leers from this crowd.
"No dates," says Satin, an unmarried team member. "Most of the time, people are really more interested in looking at the flag than at us."
The Star-Spangled Banner is badly battered. The flag, originally 30 by 42 feet, suffered 11 rips from battle. Gunpowder residue turned its stars brown. It lost 8 inches off its trailing edge and one cotton star that its early caretakers snipped for souvenirs - remnants considered so sacred that their owners asked to be buried with them.
The team's mission is not to repair the flag, but to return it to its condition when it entered the museum in 1907. The conservators are also chronicling the damage done to the banner and retrieving some of its lost pieces. (The Smithsonian has collected 11 remnants so far.)
The conservators, whose salaries are listed at between $33,650 and $53,000, were hired based on their experience in flag conservation. Throughout the work, the banner has woven itself into their lives.
Kessler devises theories about the flag's rips and stains during her commute home to Western Maryland. Satin sends her Canadian friends regular progress reports on the flag. ("They get an e-mail and go, `Oh, not again!'")
Sandstedt's son, now 5, scribbled the American flag (albeit upside-down) before he could draw much else. And Venzke's children, ages 7 and 4, know that to say Betsy Ross made this flag is blasphemy. (She made Revolutionary War flags - none as fabled as the Star-Spangled Banner).