Star-spangled display in works for U.S. banner

Flag to play dramatic role in redone gallery

September 02, 2006|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- Except for some time during World War II when it was stashed for safekeeping, the Star-Spangled Banner - which inspired the national anthem while flying over Baltimore's Fort McHenry - has been on public view for 62 years, seen by millions of school kids, historians and tourists.

But come 6:30 p.m. Monday, when workers at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington close and lock the doors to the National Museum of American History in preparation for an $85 million renovation, the huge banner will slip from view. Preservationists will, during the two-year shuttering, relocate the fragile artifact to a new, climate-controlled, soaring gallery to be constructed as the architectural centerpiece of the museum.

When the flag returns to public view in the summer of 2008, curators and other experts say, visitors will see a more theatrical presentation and get a clearer sense of how the flag helped crystallize the nation's character in a crisis.

"The banner gave a visual identity, a national identity, to states that were upstart colonies," said Marilyn Zoidis, senior curator of the Star-Spangled Banner project. "This is a powerful story of the nation in peril, and that is how we're setting the scene in the new gallery."

Francis Scott Key was, of course, being held aboard a prisoner-of-war ship in Baltimore's harbor during the British attack on the fort Sept. 12-14, 1814, which proved to be a decisive battle of the War of 1812.

By some accounts, Key saw the brilliant 30-by-42-foot garrison flag waving from Fort McHenry at dawn - signaling the survival of the fort and its defenders, and the safety of Baltimore.

The aristocratic lawyer dashed off a poem, which was later put to the tune of a drinking song. In 1931, Key's overnight ode became the national anthem.

The flag, too, gained fame far beyond its humble beginnings in 1813 as a $410 job in Mary Pickersgill's Baltimore flag-making workshop.

It remained in the possession of the family of the fort's commander, Maj. George Armistead, for the rest of the 19th century. The family gave the flag to the Smithsonian in 1907, and it underwent a major preservation project in 1914.

It was displayed in different buildings on the museum campus on Washington's National Mall, except for a few years during World War II when it was stored, along with other important artifacts, in caverns in Luray, Va., according to Irvin Molotsky, author of The Flag, The Poet & The Song. It moved to its present home in 1963.

The travels proved more damaging to the banner than the British. Pieces of it - including one of its stars - were snipped as souvenirs.

The current conservation project began in 1999. The flag was lowered from its grand setting in the atrium of the museum and taken to an adjacent laboratory that forced visitors to hang a sharp left at the entrance from Constitution Avenue and walk down a hallway to peer into a softly lit room-size glass enclosure.

Inside, the fragile flag of 15 stripes and 15 stars - representing the young nation's number of states in 1813 - was displayed horizontally.

Conservators painstakingly removed 1.7 million "honeycomb" stitches on the linen backing attached to the flag in 1914. A study had showed that it was wearing on the original banner.

This $19 million phase succeeded in saving the flag's light wool fabric and stitch work. Visitors were kept several feet away and provided with static descriptions of the flag and its historical context.

Enriching that experience is a chief goal of the Smithsonian's latest reconfiguration of the museum and the flag's display.

"This is an object with an enormous amount of emotional power," said Lonn W. Taylor, a retired Smithsonian historian and an authority on the Star-Spangled Banner. "It's our foremost national treasure. In its new setting, it'll definitely be worth the wait."

For the first time, the 2008 installation will allow visitors to see the flag's texture up close, and both sides. The wool-and-cotton flag will be tilted up at a 10-degree angle in the new gallery. The loosely woven fibers are now too weak to hang the flag vertically, as in the past.

The planned audio and visual tour will provide visitors with a virtual voyage in time, to the boat in which Key was stuck on the night of the British offensive.

"You'll learn about the Fort McHenry bombardment and the burning of Washington, where the Capitol was burned. The British were coming full force to Baltimore, the greatest army and navy in the world, but Baltimore was really prepared for the battle," said Zoidis, the project's senior curator.

"The corridor will be illuminated like the `dawn's early light,' so you can prepare your eyes."

Drama will infuse visitors' experience, Smithsonian officials said, in the re-creation of Key's emotions as he saw the fort flag waving in the distance at dawn.

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