It doesn't wave but still moves

May 28, 2006|By LARRY WILLIAMS | LARRY WILLIAMS,IDEAS EDITOR

The controversy generated by a new Spanish-language version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" is a reminder of the rich history of the 200-year-old Baltimore flag that inspired our national anthem.

The enormous, 30-by-42-foot banner hung in a central place of honor in the National Museum of American History from its opening in 1964 until 1998, when it was moved to a laboratory on the same floor, where visitors have been able to watch while a conservation team has worked to clean and stabilize its fragile fabric.

But now the conservation work has ended, and the flag is about to be removed from public view while the popular museum closes for two years to undergo a major architectural transformation. The centerpiece of those changes will be an elaborate low-light gallery that will permit the flag to be viewed under optimal conditions for long-term conservation.

The last day museum visitors can view the flag before the renovation work begins is Labor Day, Sept. 4. The museum is scheduled to reopen in summer 2008.

In a way, the survival of the flag through two centuries of private and public use and abuse is almost as remarkable as its starring role in an incident that inspired the writing of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

In September 1814, the young United States of America was at war with Great Britain, then the dominant world power, and the conflict was not going well. A British expeditionary force had just burned the Capitol and White House in Washington, and a naval assault on Baltimore was under way.

Francis Scott Key, a Frederick native and Georgetown lawyer, was visiting Baltimore to negotiate an exchange of prisoners with the British when he found himself under temporary arrest aboard an enemy ship. From the ship, he observed a fierce rocket bombardment of Fort McHenry, which protected Baltimore's harbor.

But in the early light of morning on Sept. 14, the 15 star, 15 stripe flag was hoisted by the fort's American garrison, and Key was moved to poetry as the British fleet ended their bombardment and withdrew.

The giant flag was sewn by Mary Pickersgill in her home at 844 E. Pratt St., which still stands two blocks east of the Inner Harbor. Adjacent to the house is the Flag House & Star-Spangled Banner Museum, which features a replica of the banner she produced.

The flag was commissioned by Lt. Col. George Armistead to fly over Fort McHenry and was the property of Armistead's family for many years. His grandson, Eben Appleton, gave the flag to the Smithsonian in 1907.

Through the years, pieces of the flag were torn off as mementos for veterans of the war, and it frequently received rough use as it was displayed in public on the Fourth of July and other occasions.

Keeping it in one piece was the idea in 1914, when a linen backing was added to the flag. When conservators recently carefully clipped the 1.7 million stitches that held the flag to that backing - now considered a damaging addition - they discovered that the banner was in extraordinarily fragile condition. It can no longer be hung vertically.

In the renovated museum, the flag will be displayed on a slightly tilted platform in a temperature- and atmosphere-controlled room. Visitors will view it from above through floor-to-ceiling glass windows.

The first stanza of "The Star-Spangled Banner" will be visible on the wall behind.

Larry Williams

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