Crowds flock to Fort McHenry

New visitor center features interactive exhibits, 'Star-Spangled Banner' draft

March 05, 2011|By Jessica Anderson, The Baltimore Sun

Warm temperatures and clear skies brought weekend crowds to the new $15 million visitor center at Fort McHenry, temporary home to an original draft of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Among the popular new attractions are the draft of the poem by Francis Scott Key that became the national anthem, on loan from the Maryland Historical Society until June 14, Flag Day.

A new film, which uses graphics and re-enactments to show viewers about the War of 1812, Baltimore's role in it and how Key came to write the first few lines of the national anthem, is another upgrade that proved popular among visitors.

At the end of the film, the screen rises slowly to reveal a glass wall that provides a sweeping view of the fort with the American flag flying in the center while a recording of the Navy Men's Choir performing the national anthem plays.

"When they show the fort [in the film] and then the screen goes up — it's just like living his history," said Tim Toth, who visited the fort on Saturday with his 12-year-old daughter Katie. "I'm just amazed at that. I'm so glad they kept that."

The exhibit space is divided into three galleries, each of which focuses on a different subject: The causes of the War of 1812, the moment when Key was inspired to write "The Star Spangled Banner," and how the anthem and flag together became powerful symbols of "the spirit of the American people."

A large timeline shows visitors when the anthem has been used throughout history, including a picture of Michael Phelps, who sang the anthem at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

A touch-screen display allows visitors to access 10 different versions of the song, including the feedback-drenched performance by guitarist Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, and another sung by Whitney Houston.

"Everyone likes it now because it's more interactive, more modern," said Danielle Taylor, a ranger at the national monument and historic shrine.

She said the draft of "The Star Spangled Banner" has been popular, with several visitors asking why is isn't kept there — near where it was inspired.

Taylor, who is also a teacher, said the larger facility is better for hosting larger school groups. "It's more engaging to children in the 21st century," she said. "More in their iPod mentality."

The new Fort McHenry Visitor and Education Center, which was designed to accommodate 150,000 visitors a year, replaced the original built in 1964. The original center was demolished in December.

Aricka Hawkins came with her husband and three children from their home in Prince George's County.

"There were no sporting events this weekend, and we needed something to do," she said. "It's a great facility. It's more than just a history book. It really puts us in that time," she said.

Her son, 9-year-old Aaron, said he enjoyed the movie.

"It looked 3D but you didn't need the glasses," he said.

Aaron hasn't yet learned about the War of 1812 in school.

"When they go and have this lesson in school," his mother said, "they will say, 'I remember going there.'"

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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