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After almost two centuries, the flag's frail state became plain. The icon's new high-tech home will protect it from exposure to bright light, humidity and ambient pollution. (Smithsonian Institution)

Star-Spangled Banner Back on Display

After a decade’s conservation, the flag that inspired the National Anthem returns to its place of honor on the National Mall

Eben Appleton shipped the flag to Washington in July 1907, relieved to entrust his family's inheritance—and its attendant responsibility—to the Smithsonian Institution. Initially a loan, Appleton made the transaction permanent in 1912. At that point, his family's flag became the nation's.

The Smithsonian has kept the flag on almost continuous public view even while fretting about its condition. "This sacred relic is but a frail piece of bunting, worn, frayed, pierced and largely in tatters," Assistant Secretary Richard Rathbun said in 1913.

In 1914, the Institution engaged restorer Amelia Fowler to shore up its most prized possession. Commandeering space in the Smithsonian Castle, she set ten needle-women to work removing the heavy canvas backing that had been attached to the flag in 1873 and, with some 1.7 million stitches, painstakingly attaching a new backing of Irish linen. Her work kept the flag from falling apart for nearly a century, as it was displayed in the Arts and Industries Building until 1964, then in the Museum of History and Technology, later renamed the National Museum of American History.

The song the banner inspired had become a regular feature at ballgames and patriotic events by the early 20th century. Around the same time, veterans groups launched a campaign to have Key's composition formally designated as the national anthem. By 1930, five million citizens had signed a petition in support of the idea, and after veterans recruited a pair of sopranos to sing the song before the House Judiciary Committee, Congress adopted "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the national anthem the next year.

When war threatened Washington in 1942, Smithsonian officials quietly whisked the flag and other treasures to a warehouse in Luray, Virginia, to protect them. Returned to the capital in 1944, the flag provided a backdrop for inaugural balls, presidential speeches and countless public events. But constant exposure to light and ambient pollution took their toll, and the flag was removed from exhibit in the National Museum of American History in 1998 for a thorough conservation treatment, aimed at extending the flag's life for another century.

Conservators cleaned it with a solution of water and acetone, removing contaminants and reducing acidity in the fabric. During a delicate operation that took 18 months, they removed Amelia Fowler's linen backing. Then they attached—to the other side of the flag—a new backing made of a sheer polyester fabric called Stabiltex. As a result, visitors will see a side of the flag that had been hidden from view since 1873.

These high-tech attentions have stabilized the flag and prepared it for a new display room at the heart of the renovated museum. There the flag that began life on a brewery floor is sealed in a pressurized chamber. Monitored by sensors, shielded by glass, guarded by a waterless fire-suppression system and soothed by temperature and humidity controls, it lies on a custom-built table that allows conservators to care for it without having to move it. "We really want this to be the last time it's handled," says Thomassen-Krauss. "It's getting too fragile for moving and handling."

So the old flag survives, bathed in dim light, floating out of the darkness, just as it did on that uncertain morning at Fort McHenry.

Robert M. Poole is the magazine's contributing editor. He last wrote about Winslow Homer's watercolors, in the May Issue.

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