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Architecture Column

The flag that flew over Fort McHenry and inspired the national anthem will be better protected in a new exhibit that opens next year

December 03, 2007|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Sun architecture critic

Washington — Washington-- --No bright lights. No more exposure to dirt and debris from outdoors. But much more information about the flag that flew over Baltimore's Fort McHenry in 1814 and why it's such an important piece of U.S. history.

That's the way visitors will see the original Star-Spangled Banner when it goes back on public display next year as the centerpiece of the National Museum of American History on the National Mall.

After being out of view since September 2006, the flag will be featured in a new Star-Spangled Banner gallery when the museum at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest reopens after an $85 million renovation.

Directors of the Smithsonian Institution held a hard-hat tour last week to show that they have reached the halfway point on the renovations. They plan to announce a firm reopening date in February, but the expected time frame is next summer.

"We are making great strides in transforming the National Museum of American History," director Brent Glass said. "The shell for the new Star-Spangled Banner gallery is taking shape, and we have raised the necessary funds to complete the construction. ... We will be shedding new light on American history, literally and figuratively."

The 30-by-34-foot wool and cotton flag is the one that flew over Fort McHenry when it survived a bombardment by the British during the Battle of Baltimore, prompting attorney Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became the national anthem. Featuring 15 stars and 15 stripes, the flag was donated to the Smithsonian in 1907 and has been displayed at the history museum since it opened in 1964.

Although it has many different flags and replicas of flags, Fort McHenry does not have any dating from the War of 1812.

The history museum's state-of-the-art flag gallery has been designed to prevent further deterioration of the banner, one of the most valuable artifacts in its collection but also one of the most fragile. The fabric was restored as part of a separate conservation project from 1998 to 2005.

An abstract sculpture, made of lightweight reflective tiles to evoke a waving flag, will be mounted high above the entrance to the Star-Spangled Banner gallery and will become the focal point of the museum's Mall entrance, through which more than two-thirds of all visitors enter. The museum draws more than 3 million visitors a year.

Visitors will see the flag in a new setting off the main entrance. Instead of hanging vertically, as it did before, the flag will be placed on a flat surface, sloping 10 degrees so it can be seen in its entirety by people standing several feet away - a position that won't subject it to damage from the pull of gravity. The flag and its platform will be enclosed in a climate-controlled case, designed to keep the air clean and temperature levels constant, with floor-to-ceiling windows for an unobstructed view.

Before they can see the flag, visitors will pass an "artifact wall" providing information about the War of 1812, the burning of Washington and the defense of Baltimore. Turning left, they'll come upon the glass case housing the flag. Light levels will be low to protect the fabric and suggest the "dawn's early light" that enabled Key to see that the flag was still flying after the British bombardment of Fort McHenry.

After viewing the flag, visitors will leave the gallery through a different corridor that will present information about how the flag inspired the national anthem, what happened to it after the war and how it became part of the Smithsonian's collection.

Of the $85 million cost to restore the museum, about $19 million is related to the Star-Spangled Banner gallery, including the new glass chamber, sloping table, abstract flag, artifact walls and fire prevention system. Another $11 million was spent on the conservation of the flag and other work that was not part of the museum renovation, such as research and educational outreach. That brings the total cost of the Star-Spangled Banner Preservation Project to about $30 million.

Glass said the goal behind the flag exhibit was not only to protect the flag from deterioration but also to show it in a way that enables visitors - including many from outside the United States - to understand its significance.

"In the past," he said, "we displayed the flag without much context or interpretation. Some people would walk by and not know what they were seeing. This gives us a chance to present the flag in its historical context and explain its connection to the national anthem. It gives us a way to fulfill our educational mission."

The new exhibit also represents a technological breakthrough in showcasing such a large and fragile object, he said. "We're setting a new standard for presenting a textile object of this size."

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