In August 1814, after defeating American defenses in Washington and burning the White House, British forces set their sights on Baltimore. Not only was it a major port and the third largest city in the upstart republic, but Baltimore privateers had captured or sunk so many British merchant ships that the invading forces called the city a "nest of pirates." Everyone knew an attack was likely and many thought it inevitable. When the battle finally came, on September 13, a 35-year-old lawyer with a knack for poetry was watching from a ship in the harbor. Several times during the night he wondered if the city’s last defense, Fort McHenry, had been overcome. But as the sun rose through the smoke of battle, Francis Scott Key saw Fort McHenry's giant American flag waving defiantly...victoriously. "Our flag was still there."
That flag, the Star-Spangled Banner, which inspired Key to scribble down what is now our national anthem, represents the pride, perseverance and patriotism of our nation. Now housed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History Kenneth E. Behring Center (NMAH), it is a national icon.
That is why for nearly a century now the Smithsonian has cared for the flag, preserved it and made it available for the world to see. An extensive $18.6 million, eight-year conservation project, funded largely by Polo Ralph Lauren, was completed last year. The need for a new gallery to display this most important flag is one reason why, as part of a major transformation, NMAH will close at the end of Labor Day until the summer of 2008. Visitors will then see the Star-Spangled Banner exhibited as never before. Displays leading to it will present images, objects and sounds to convey the peril and high stakes of the battle, and the flag itself will be illuminated as if at sunrise. Inscribed on the wall behind it will be the first stanza of Key's poem.
It promises to be a stunning, emotional and inspiring experience, like the entire transformed National Museum of American History itself. We will be undertaking extensive architectural enhancements to open up NMAH, making it more engaging and easier for visitors to navigate. Workers will remove the marble panels that currently block the view to the museum’s third floor. This will create an airy central core atrium with a new skylight. The atrium will serve as America’s town square, a crossroads for visitors, a forum for public programs and ceremonies, a plaza for performances and special events. A grand glass staircase will connect the museum's first and second floors and allow views from one side of the building to the other. New ten-foot-high "artifact walls" on both the first and second floors will help showcase the breadth of the museum's three million objects. And new entrance vestibules and the new Ivan and Nina Selin Welcome Center will help visitors get oriented.
The first stage of the NMAH renovation will cost about $85 million, and we're grateful to Kenneth E. Behring for using part of his overall gift to the Smithsonian for that purpose. We're also grateful to Congress for its funding support.
NMAH is a temple of American memory, culture and identity—housing, as it does, the desk on which Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, the hat Abraham Lincoln wore to Ford's Theatre the night he was assassinated and the Woolworth's lunch counter from the 1960 Greensboro civil rights sit-in. Not to mention Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz.
Fortunately, many of these treasures will be on display at the National Air and Space Museum during the renovation. We welcome you to see them there and then again in 2008 back at home, together with our most revered flag, on view as Key saw it, "by the dawn's early light."